STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Stadium parley scrambles 2005 legislative agenda

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At least until mid-December, we thought we had a tentative handle on the General Assembly’s focus for the 2005 session.

We knew the new governor and the new Republican House majority would team up on economic development initiatives, improving governmental efficiency and restructuring state agencies. The biggest task would be crafting a realistic state budget in the face of adversity and uncertainty.

The regular “stuff of government” would also be squeezed in and some thorny telecommunications issues would be raised, along with some cultural issues from both the left and the right.

The session was shaping up as perhaps the busiest in history, even before Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat, ventured onto the RCA Dome turf with Colts owner Jim Irsay and announced agreement on a deal that would keep the Colts in Indianapolis, build a new retractable roof stadium downtown, and expand the Indiana Convention Center.

The overall price tag: at least $800 million, teetering around $900 million when intangibles are factored in.

While Indianapolis was successful in the late 1990s when it sought state help to build Conseco Fieldhouse, the state was a bit more flush then, Statehouse denizens were a bit more charitable toward funding projects in Indianapolis, and Hoosiers were less concerned about spending on more quasi-public facilities.

But Peterson covered everything in his plan. He is not coming to the state with hat in hand, asking for tax dollars for a facility that would be used only by a sports franchise that isn’t even the favorite team of those in southeast or northwest Indiana.

He will present legislators with a funding package requiring no tax increase for Hoosiers, seeking increases in touristrelated taxes, and creating a tax-increment financing zone in an area including the new facilities. The Colts would also kick in $100 million.

But the major funding component is the most controversial.

The bulk of financing would come from tax revenue generated by legalizing electronic pull-tab machines in a joint Hoosier Park/Indiana Downs satellite wagering facility to be located in Indianapolis. In the plan’s simplistic beauty lies the rub.

Senate President Pro Tem Bob Garton, R-Columbus, told reporters Peterson “has now rearranged the priorities of this legislative session,” and that “all of the other issues are going to pale by comparison.”

This will be a huge issue for lawmakers and, though Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels remains open-minded on the overall scheme, the Republican is clearly skeptical about expanding gambling in the state and, we suspect, especially in Indianapolis.

While the concept of pull-tab parlors for the horse-racing tracks generated little legislative enthusiasm this summer other than from lawmakers whose districts would directly benefit, what does resonate among lawmakers is the potential for big tax bucks for the state.

While the House and Senate have become more philosophically conservative as a result of the election-and seemingly reluctant to approve any gambling expansion, the “whole” may be less important than the sum of its parts. The luck of the draw means many key lawmakers may be more predisposed to supporting gambling expansion than their rank-and-file colleagues. And key delegations may also now be poised to back the proposal.

Any final deal will be part of the budget. That offers the opportunity for legislative legerdemain. Indianapolis-despite being home to new Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis-will not emerge as the only winner. Fort Wayne and the communities with horse tracks will have to benefit. And lawmakers may also legalize gambling in bars, taverns and fraternal organizations as the rationale for barring them fades and the potential for more licensing and tax revenue grows.

There may also be a push to hike the tax on riverboat casinos.

You will see debate over the specific forms of gambling proposed. Many lawmakers believe “pull-tabs” will not be the final product of legislation.

Peterson has offered a fully funded plan that ostensibly is not balanced on the backs of Hoosier taxpayers. And it’s one that foists responsibility for making the difficult public policy choices on lawmakers.

While it might be a no-brainer to Indianapolis residents, many equities are at play here. But that is also a Peterson plan advantage: It offers so simple a set of decisions that those who oppose it must justify their opposition more than he must justify its adoption.

Equally simple, however, is the moral factor.

Moral opposition to gambling-or its expansion-is a defensible position.

Look for Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R – Noblesville, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Espich, RUniondale, to offer funding options that will not rely so much on new sources of gambling in the city, but that might require local residents to pony up for the Colts.

Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached by e-mail at

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