Lawmakers in the Indiana House say they'll exempt casinos from a proposed statewide smoking ban — a move that could give the legislation its best shot at becoming law while preventing the state from potentially losing millions of dollars in gambling taxes.
Casinos have long argued that a smoking ban would hurt business, and the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency recently estimated in a fiscal note that the state could lose more than $180 million a year in taxes if gamblers couldn't light up. The high price tag in a time of slumping state revenues meant there was no hope for a comprehensive ban, said Rep. Charlie Brown, a Democrat from Gary who has pushed for such a ban for several years.
"That fiscal note killed us," he said.
The House Public Health Committee discussed the bill Wednesday but didn't take a vote on it. However, Brown and Committee Chair Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said they would vote next week to amend the bill to exempt casinos.
"In this budgetary environment we're talking about — with every penny tight and any dollar taken away is a dollar taken away from K-12 education — it's our obligation to maybe minimize the impact," Tim Brown said.
Statewide smoking bans have passed the House before but have stalled in the Senate. Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said Wednesday that he would consider giving the smoking ban bill a hearing this year — if it exempts casinos. Otherwise the ban would hurt casinos and reduce the amount gambling brings to the state, he said.
"That's just shooting ourselves in the foot," Long said.
Mike Smith, executive director of the Casino Association of Indiana, said the loss in gambling revenue wouldn't just harm the state — it would also affect employees, contractors, nearby businesses and others who depend on casinos.
"All those things are part of this multi-billion-dollar industry in Indiana," Smith said. "It's all about the opportunity for people to have jobs."
But advocates of a comprehensive smoking ban — one that would ban smoking in all public places in Indiana — said it wasn't fair to exempt casinos.
Karena Walker said she worked at Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg for more than 14 years before quitting in March. She said she suffered from health problems from secondhand smoke, and said her doctor told her she had the lung capacity of someone who smoked three packs a day. She said casino workers deserve the same protections as office workers and others who don't have to work around smokers.
"It's not fair. I don't understand what makes someone who works at a hospital any more special than I am," she said. "I had to choose my health over my job."
Some bar owners also want an exemption from the proposed smoking ban, but Charlie Brown said he was against giving any other exemptions. He said only casinos, horse racing tracks, off-track betting facilities and some other places like cigar bars should be exempt.
Supporters of the legislation report growing support for a statewide ban. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce supports it, and Gov. Mitch Daniels has said he will sign the bill into law if lawmakers approve it.