Indiana House Approves Gaming Bill

Indiana state Rep. Tom Dermody's casino bill passed the House with controversial casino tax provisions removed. The measure allows riverboat casinos to move ashore and live dealers at racinos—an issue that could cause problems with Governor Mike Pence (l.) who opposes expanded gambling but won't explain what that means.

In a 76-19 vote, the Indiana House approved House Bill 1540 allowing riverboat casinos to move onto land and live dealers at table games at racinos. The wide margin shows “a strong indication of support for the bill. I think that sends a message, at least from the House side.” said state Rep. Tom Dermody, the bill’s sponsor.

The bill would give the 10 riverboats along Lake Michigan and the Ohio River the option to build new land-based casinos on property near their current locations. Owners of casinos in Evansville and Gary have especially pushed for that change, saying they could build better facilities to attract more customers.

The measure also would allow Hoosier Park in Anderson and Indiana Grand in Shelbyville to have live dealers for table games such as blackjack instead of computer-run games.

In addition, the bill offers state tax incentives to casinos for building new facilities, including hotels, concert venues and restaurants and extends tax breaks for casino promotions.

House members voted to have a special committee study proposed casino tax changes that would have gone into effect in 2017 and would have cost local governments tens of millions of dollars in revenues. The proposal would have cut annual tax payments from the state’s 13 casinos by $120-$190 million, while casinos would save an estimated $218 million dollars annually. A new wagering tax structure would cost local municipalities $15 million a year, and another $82 million would be taken from local governments by eliminating the $3 casino admissions tax. In addition, the state would withdraw the subsidy it now provides for local revenue sharing agreements; local municipalities would lose another $90 million by having to renegotiate revenue sharing agreements with casinos.

Governor Mike Pence expressed opposition to the provision allowing live dealers at racinos. Senate President Pro Tem David Long said, “If you want to talk about where’s the one that gives people pause, that seem be that threshold. We’ll have to figure that out.” However, Dermody said he plans to work with the governor on the issue.

Pence consistently has said he does not want to scale back Indiana’s casino industry but he has not explained what he considers expanded gambling. His spokeswoman Kara Brooks said, “The governor is opposed to the expansion of gaming in Indiana and does not want to advantage one sector of the gaming industry over another. The governor has stated that he is open to certain best business practices that improve our ability to remain competitive with surrounding states but does not support expansion. This issue is not on the governor’s agenda so he will watch the legislature work its will and then make a decision after he has seen the final version of the bill.”

State Rep. Sean Eberhart said, “Hopefully the governor will say, ‘Hey, there is a lot of support for this, maybe I should give this a second look.’ ”

Proponents of the bill said Indiana’s casinos need help to compete against new gaming in neighboring states. Since 2010, casino tax revenue has declined by 28 percent, or $185 million. Indiana officials project an additional 12 percent drop in the next two years.

The House also passed by a vote of 81-15 House Bill 1270, which allows gamblers to place bets on horse races within or outside Indiana via computer or smartphone. The bill’s author, state Rep. Robert Cherry

said the measure is “technical in nature” and legalizes authorization for account or advanced deposit wagering which was “deleted by mistake” in 2005 when the General Assembly strengthened its internet gambling laws.

The bill drew no debate, and a shocked Speaker Brian Bosma asked, “Does everyone understand the content of the bill?” When no one replied, Bosma said, “Seriously? I’m not sure we understand the content of the bill.”

Following the vote, Cherry said thousands of Indiana gamblers already are betting illegally online through third-party wagering companies. He said the Indiana racetracks do not receive a cut. The bill also requires the third-party companies to be licensed by the state and pay fees to Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs. “It will help the Indiana horsemen as well as the state of Indiana as well as the tracks. This is the last thing we need to do to make the horse racing tracks competitive,” Cherry said.