Gambling fight set to test governor’s power

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence does not often take hard stances when it comes to items facing the Indiana General Assembly, but one issue he has been firm on since taking office is his opposition to expanded gambling.

That position could put him at odds with fellow Republican lawmakers willing to hear out Indiana's struggling gaming industry, which — hobbled by the recession and new competition just across state lines — is preparing to make a major push for expansion when lawmakers convene in January.

The state's casinos would like to move their operations on land, while the two "racinos" — racetracks with slots — would like to add live table games.

The issue has not always been a marquee one inside the Statehouse of late, either taking a backseat to proposals like tax cuts in 2013 or being punted during this past session.

But questions are already bubbling up for Pence, and whether he would consider measures to save the ailing industry — and the money it provides for the state coffers.

Southwest Indiana leaders, looking to support the Tropicana Casino, attempted to pin the governor down on the issue this past summer during one of his stops in Evansville.

"It is not my intention to pursue policies that reduce gaming in Indiana, but neither is it my policy to expand gaming in Indiana," Pence told the Evansville Courier Press, repeating his oft-stated position on the issue.

Ed Feigenbaum, a veteran observer of the state's gaming industry and editor of Indiana Gaming Insight, notes that Pence has been clear about opposing any expansion, but has also been open to tax breaks and other forms of aid to maintain the status quo in the state.

"Lawmakers would like to see a clearer definition of what he will accept or not and learn a bit more about why he feels that way philosophically, given the economics of the situation and the reality of the world facing the industry in Indiana and its 13,000 direct jobs," Feigenbaum said. "In the end, however, they may simply go their own way, and if there is sufficient support for change in the Legislature, they may risk a veto and consider an override."

Indiana's governor can veto measures, but lawmakers can override that veto with a simple majority — the same hurdle needed to pass any legislation in the first place. That effectively dilutes the power of any veto.

Gambling in Indiana has long been the province of the state's Democrats, with legalization of casinos and slots at the racetracks all happening under Democratic governors. The gaming operations themselves have often provided jobs in either current Democratic strongholds — like northwest Indiana — or former strongholds along the Ohio River.

But the question now falls to Republicans, who hold the governor's office and supermajorities in both the House and the Senate. One of the key players, House Public Policy Chairman Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, began a series of hearings on the issue last month, vetting the issue ahead of January's session.

Pence has maintained a light touch with the General Assembly, adopting an approach of submitting broad legislative agendas and relying on fellow Republican lawmakers to fill in the key details. Both of his tax cut plans, offered in 2013 and then in 2014, were altered significantly by Republican legislative leaders.

But at the end of each session, Pence, Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, walked away from the session touting the tax cuts as universal victories — regardless of how they looked.

Gambling expansion has the potential, however, to put Pence opposite those same Republican leaders. The results next session will offer a true mark of his influence inside the Statehouse, and, more specifically, the General Assembly.

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