Gambling bill would allow Terre Haute casino, accelerates timeline for live games at racinos

The major gambling bill that has been filed at the Indiana Legislature would allow the casinos in Gary to relocate and would accelerate when horse-track casinos could begin offering live table games.

In 2015, state lawmakers approved legislation that allowed the two casinos with horse-racing tracks—Indiana Grand in Shelbyville and Harrah’s Hoosier Park in Anderson—to add live-dealer table games starting in 2021. Currently, the racinos can only have slot machines and table games with electronic dealers.

Senate Bill 552, filed by Republican Sens. Mark Messmer from Jasper and Jon Ford from Terre Haute, would instead allow live-dealer table games at the racinos starting this year.

“We can take advantage of the tax revenue it would generate,” Ford said. “There’s really no reason to hold off.”

A bill filed in 2017 that would have allowed the live games that year failed to even get a committee hearing, but Ford said he thinks lawmakers are more open-minded about gambling legislation this year.

Ford hopes that open-mindedness could also bring a casino to Terre Haute. The bill would allow Majestic Star Casino I and Majestic Star Casino II to relocate, with one staying  within the city of Gary and the other moving to Vigo County, where Terre Haute is located.

The casino relocations would require approval from the Gary City Council. And the casino that moved to Vigo County would need to win approval from the governing body in that district. Voters would also get a say through a local referedum.

“You don’t want to just force it on some community,” Ford said.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has already publicly said she wants the casinos to move off of Lake Michigan’s Buffington Harbor and that she would be OK if the city kept just one of the two licenses. Gary officials would like to better utilize the harbor, which is already highly industrial, and spark growth in another area of the community by moving a casino there.

Spectacle Entertainment, a new company led by some of the same individuals who controlled Indianapolis-based Centaur Gaming before it was bought by Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment Corp., is in the process of acquiring Majestic Star and Majestic Star II. Since the acquisition was announced in November, Spectacle has said it’s interested in relocating the casinos.

John Keeler, general counsel for Spectacle, said no bill is ever perfect when it's introduced. But he said Spectacle supports SB 552.

“It’s a great starting place,” Keeler said. “It’s a long, long process until the end of April.”

The bill also would allow Rising Star Casino Resort to relocate its unused "positions," or unused gambling games like slot machines or tables, to Vigo County. The state regulates how many “positions” each casino is allowed, and Ford said Rising Star has about 750 unused positions that could be used in another location.

It’s a move Rising Star’s owner, Las Vegas-based Full House Resorts Inc., has been eyeing for years. The existing location near Cincinnati would remain open.

Ford filed similar legislation in 2017 in an attempt to get a casino in Terre Haute, but the bill died without having a committee hearing.

Ford said the goal of the bill this year is not to bring two casinos in Terre Haute but to provide multiple options. It’s likely a final version would only allow either the Rising Star games or the Gary casino license to move there, rather than both.

“I think there will be a debate about which philosophy is better,” Ford said. “At the end of the day, my goal has been to bring a casino to Terre Haute.”

Full House Resorts is excited about the opportunity the bill would provide.

“We applaud Sen. Messmer's and Sen. Ford's commitment to providing a level playing field for Indiana casino operators to compete for a supplemental gaming facility in Terre Haute,” Alex Stolyar, senior vice president and chief development officer of Full House Resorts, said in a prepared statement. “We encourage the Legislature to establish a competitive process for a new casino that maximizes economic development for Indiana. Terre Haute wants a casino. Indiana deserves a fair and competitive process.”

The bill also dictates that any casino investment in Vigo County would have to be at least $150 million and requires the casino to pay $3 million annually to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to help fund preservation and maintenance of West Baden Springs Hotel.

Keeler said Spectacle officials would want to discuss the $3 million annual payment, because there is some concern the bill implies that payments would never end. Also, Spectacle officials are still assessing whether the $150 million investment requirement is feasible. But, Keeler added, it’s not enough of a concern to oppose the bill.

The Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce also supports the effort to bring a casino to town and has launched a campaign called “Terre Haute Is All In.”

“They’re going to strongly advocate for a casino,” Ford said. “This tax revenue to the community could really help.”

All of the casino moves would require approval of the Indiana Gaming Commission.

In addition to the casino relocations and change in when race-track casinos could add live-dealer table games, the bill also would remove a limit on the number of casinos licenses an individual company could control. Current state law limits owners to two licenses.

It is also the third bill that has been filed to legalize sports gambling. Unlike the other two bills—one filed by Ford separately and another by Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Terre Haute—this one prohibits betting on e-sports, like video games.

Ford said that’s mostly because the industry is so new.

“We’re still waiting to see really where it goes,” Ford said.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Public Policy Committee. Ford said he expects it to receive a hearing next month.

"You can expect a vigorous debate on all of these issues," Ford said.

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