Indiana Senate approves sports betting, casino moves

Hoosiers are one step closer to being able to place legal bets on sporting events.

The Indiana Senate approved a comprehensive gambling bill Tuesday afternoon by a 38-11 vote.

The legislation would legalize sports wagering, let horse-track casinos add table games this year as opposed to waiting until 2021 and allow two Gary casinos to move—one to a nearby interstate site and the other to Terre Haute.

Senate Bill 552, authored by Republican Sens. Mark Messmer of Jasper and Jon Ford of Terre Haute, now moves to the House for consideration.

“Senate Bill 552 is a once in a generation opportunity to reset the casino industry in Indiana,” Messmer said.

One of the significant parts of the bill that has received little attention at the Indiana General Assembly is the ability to place bets on sports, like professional basketball or football games.

The bill would allow mobile sports wagering after an individual signs up in person at a casino or off-track betting facility, such as Winner’s Circle in downtown Indianapolis. It does not provide an integrity or royalty fee for professional sports leagues, but it would require official league data to be used for in-game bets only.

Supporters of legalizing sports wagering argue that it's a way to oversee what's already happening illegally and generate possibly millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state. According to the American Gaming Association, $107 billion is wagered illegally on sports every year.

As for the casino shuffling, the bill would allow Majestic Star I and Majestic Star II to relocate out of Buffington Harbor on Lake Michigan—something Gary officials have been advocating as they try to clear the area for other development projects.

Spectacle Entertainment—a company founded by some of the same investors that operated Centaur Gaming before it was purchased by Caesars Entertainment—is in the process of buying both casinos. It has said it wants to move one of the casinos to the Interstate 80/94 corridor in Gary and the other to Terre Haute.

The bill would allow that to happen, but it would create a competitive process to determine which casino operation could open a facility in Terre Haute, so Spectacle wouldn’t be guaranteed permission to move forward on that location. Other casinos would be allowed to use unused gambling “positions" from their existing casinos. The state caps the number of gambling positions at each location but some casinos fall under the number.

The bill also would remove the two-license limit on the number of casinos an individual company could control in order to make that competitive process possible for some operators that already have two casinos.

At least one other casino operator—Rising Star’s owner, Las Vegas-based Full House Resorts Inc.—has expressed interest in opening a casino in Terre Haute.

Messmer said the competitive process is important in making sure Terre Haute and the state get the best project possible. The Indiana Gaming Commission would be responsible for selecting the best proposal.

The Senate Appropriations Committee eliminated that competitive process from the language last week, but the full Senate agreed to add it back in on Monday.

The Senate also added back subsidies that would be paid to communities that might suffer after the Gary casinos move. The language would cover East Chicago, Hammond, Michigan City and Evansville. Provisions to support preservation and maintenance of West Baden Springs Hotel, which is part of the French Lick Casino Resort complex, and the Indiana Horse Racing Commission’s breed development funds were also added back into the bill on Monday.

But it still wasn’t enough support for some lawmakers. Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, said the funding would stop after three years and doesn’t directly support Tropicana Casino or its owner, Eldorado Resorts Inc.

“I don’t think it’s fair to leave us high and dry after three years,” Becker said.

Becker was one of the 11 votes against the legislation and the only senator to speak against it.

The bill faces an uncertain future in the House, where Speaker Brian Bosma has repeatedly said he sees the proposal as an expansion of gambling. 

Senators supporting the legislation disagree.

"I don't see this as an expansion of gaming,” Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, said. "I see this as an opportunity to leverage our existing assets.”

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