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Lawmakers debate what counts as gambling expansion

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In many ways, the differences between playing electronic roulette at the racetrack and playing the wheel at a riverboat casino are akin to reading this story on an iPad or in the paper.

There are no chips to lay down on felt tables at the Indiana Grand Casino's electronic roulette tables, but bet $10 on red on the touchscreen and you'll lose it if the mechanized wheel a few feet away catches the ball on black. Read this on an iPad and there's no crinkle of the paper or smell of ink, but the content is the same.

The differences between the electronic and standard table games are being portrayed to Indiana state lawmakers this year as one of life and death, with proponents of a bill that would allow racetrack table games saying they would add jobs while not substantially changing what the racetracks already offer.

"All we're doing is taking that table, taking it off the electronic format and putting on a different table top, and putting a live person behind it," said Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, one of the lawmakers behind the legislation.

Eberhart calls the gambling bill the biggest "jobs" measure lawmakers can pass this session, based on the assessment Indiana Grand would hire roughly 600 new workers to man new table games. And he dismisses critics who call it an expansion of gaming.

"We're not adding any additional games, we're just changing the format, and I just think it's disingenuous for people to call it an expansion of gaming," he said.

Centaur Inc., the new owner of Indiana Grand and longtime owner of the Hoosier Park slots outfit, has been lobbying hard for the change, as pressure mounts from new casinos being built near Indiana's borders.

Opponents say allowing racetrack table games would amount to a major expansion of gaming in the state. The Senate passed a larger bill that would allow table games, but the House Public Policy Committee stripped the provision out, agreeing that it would expand gaming. The legislation appears stalled with a few weeks left in the session.

The former owners of Indiana Grand did everything they could to make the slots parlor look like a full-blown casino. And they largely succeeded in stymieing the General Assembly's attempts to limit their operations to slot machines.

At the Indiana Grand poker room, players huddle around close to a dozen felt tables and play in tournaments much like they would anywhere on the Ohio River or Lake Michigan. A few workers even stand behind the blackjack tables and look over a touchscreen as players ponder hitting or staying on their own screens.

The atmosphere and marketing have also been shaped to give every appearance of a Las Vegas or Atlantic City casino on the outskirts of Indianapolis — when the Baltimore-based Cordish Companies opened the Shelbyville location in 2008, it dubbed it Indiana's "second land casino."

But appearances only go so far.

Steve Ferguson, owner of the French Lick Casino and Resort, gave lawmakers some insight last week into why Centaur is pushing so hard for the games: table games are designed to ratchet up slots play. If a husband goes to the track to the play poker all day, his wife is more likely to spend money on slots, he said.

The racetracks are also uniquely positioned to tap into vestal central Indiana, a market the state's riverboat operators have never fully broached.

Centaur has spent roughly $6 million on Statehouse lobbyists over the last 12 years, fighting first for slot machines and later for a lower tax rate on those slots. When more recent spending figures are released in the coming months, they will likely show the company has made another large bet on table games.

The number of table games would be determined by the Indiana Gaming Commission, which approved electronic table games independent of the General Assembly a few years ago.

"I've never been out there, in the racino, to look. But I've been told that it does very closely resemble table games. I can tell you that was never the intent, it was never discussed when the slot machine racino bill passed here," House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

"It certainly took a twist that most of us that were involved in the decision didn't anticipate," Bosma said. "Who knew a slot machine could be defined to include a roulette table?"

Lawmakers may not have approved the electronic roulette tables and video poker rooms at the racetracks that the Gaming Commission authorized a few years ago, but they're being asked to now. The difference between the touchscreen and the felt might not seem like much, but more than a few high rollers think it's worth something.

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