Lawmakers still considering live table games at racinos

The Indiana House Ways and Means Committee postponed amendments and a vote on a gambling measures Wednesday after supporters of the state’s horse-track casinos renewed their fight to get live dealers at their table games.

Lawmakers are working with a bill, authored by Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, that is an attempt to help out the casino industry under attack from new gambling operations in Ohio.

As passed by the Senate, the bill was laden with ways to help struggling Indiana casinos, whose revenues are annually the third or fourth largest source of income to the state. Among them were provisions allowing live gaming tables at race track casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville, and permitting riverboats to move gaming on shore.

But last week, the House Public Policy Committee stripped those provisions from the bill, leaving behind only tax breaks for casino marketing and upgrades. But that didn’t stop casinos from lobbying the Ways and Means Committee to restore the bill to the Senate-passed version.

Steve Jimenez, general manager for Rising Star Casino and Resort in Rising Sun, said that since the new Cincinnati casino opened up this month, the riverboat has already suffered almost a 20-percent hit. He said that action by the legislature is necessary.

“From our standpoint, doing nothing will only add to the downturn,” Jimenez said.

Despite losing some of the provisions, Boots said that SB 528 still has plenty of incentives to help out the struggling casinos.

Boots told the committee that the bill includes two key tax and budget components:

— A provision that exempts up to $2 million in annual so-called “free play” for each casino. That affects the vouchers casinos send to customers to entice them to gamble. Currently, casinos are taxed on the use of those vouchers. The measure would let casinos send up to $2 million of those vouchers out untaxed.

— A provision that provides $40 million in annual tax credits for casino upgrades and improvements.

Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, is a House sponsor of the bill but was frustrated that it had been stripped of language allowing live dealers at table games.

Eberhart said asked the Ways and Means Committee to reinstate the provision permitting live dealers, saying it would mean economic development for Shelbyville, where Indiana Grand casino is located. That language would also add new taxes for the state.

“It was the only revenue-producing component of the bill,” Eberhart said. “Every other component will take away money from the general fund.”

Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, called the legislation the “easiest jobs bill” of the session — if it includes the provisions for live dealers.

Supporters say that would lead to a net increase of 600 jobs in Indiana — about 800 new positions at the horse track casinos and a loss of about 15 jobs at each of the state’s other casinos. Those job losses would come because table game players who normally visit a riverboat casino would choose the horse track casinos instead.

“It’s something we need to do,” Dermody said. We need to make the casinos as competitive as possible. There are people who will not play the electronic games.”

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