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Indiana lawmakers facing renewed debate over casinos

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – A new Statehouse push to allow Indiana’s riverboat casinos to move to on-land sites and let the state’s horse track casinos have live dealers run table games comes as supporters are more optimistic of success after several years of failure.

The proposal aims to help boost Indiana’s casinos after they’ve seen more big declines in revenue in the face of growing competition from neighboring states.

Casino advocates, however, still must overcome potential opposition from Republican Gov. Mike Pence and some legislators if they perceive the proposals as an expansion of gambling.

House Public Policy Committee Chairman Tom Dermody said he believes the bill he’s sponsoring has more support than what existed two years ago when many of the same changes were proposed.

Dermody, R-LaPorte, said a legislative study committee that he led after last year’s General Assembly session hashed out many of the casino issues and that his bill is largely based on that panel’s unanimous recommendations.

“I think we found some opportunities that aren’t considered an expansion of gaming,” he said.

That hurdle might need to be cleared if any major casino legislation is going to win approval.

Total state tax revenues from Indiana’s 13 casinos fell by $99 million, or about 13 percent, during the fiscal year ending June 30, according to Indiana Gaming Commission reports. A December forecast of state revenue projected an additional annual decline of some $56 million, or 12 percent, for the budget year ending in June 2017.

Pence has consistently said he isn’t seeking to scale back Indiana’s casino industry, but doesn’t support any expansion. He hasn’t, however, detailed what he considers an expansion.

Dermody’s bill would allow the 10 riverboats along the Ohio River and Lake Michigan to build on-land casinos on property adjacent to their current sites.

Such permission has especially been sought by the casinos in Gary and Evansville, which maintain that new land-based facilities would have better features and be more convenient for visitors.

The proposal would also allow the state’s two horse track casinos – Hoosier Park in Anderson and Indiana Grand in Shelbyville – to have live dealers for table games such as blackjack that are now run by computers.

Along with the decline in revenues, the state’s casinos had their total number of electronic and table games drop nearly 12 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to state reports.

That decline is among the reasons that the proposed changes won’t represent a gambling expansion, said John Keeler, vice president and general counsel for Centaur Gaming, which owns the Anderson and Shelbyville casinos.

Centaur officials believe allowing live dealers would attract gamblers who are wary of games run by computers and boost business.

“We don’t believe that substituting a live person for a machine at what is now an electronic table is an expansion,” Keeler said.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma is among those leery of major changes concerning the casinos, which have pumped billions of dollars into state coffers since they first opened in the mid-1990s.

“I’m not willing to mortgage our future further into the gaming abyss for a few dollars in the bottom line,” Bosma said. “At the same time, we’re talking about a lot of jobs throughout the state. I don’t look at the falling gaming revenues and hit the panic button as some do.”

Lawmakers representing areas with casinos argue that the Legislature needs to take steps to protect the thousands of jobs in the industry, which also pays millions of dollars a year in taxes to local governments.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said the continued escalation of casino competition from other states making the need for Indiana action more pressing – and she doesn’t consider allowing the casinos to move from water onto land an expansion of gambling.

“Casinos have contributed to our economy for many years,” she said. “They should be treated like any other business.”