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July 26, 2017

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Indiana legislators move to block lucrative dockside gambling

INDIANAPOLIS -- A Senate committee dealt a severe and possibly lethal blow Wednesday to legislation that would legalize dockside gambling in Indiana.

The Republican-controlled Senate Rules Committee voted 5-3 along party lines against the bill, which already had been approved by the Democrat-controlled House.

Although the legislation could be revived during conference committee negotiations later this session and get to the full Senate, the chamber's top fiscal leader declared it dead.

"This won't be resurrected this time. This is it," said Senate Finance Chairman Larry Borst, R-Greenwood.

Lobbyists for the casino industry, who have waged a well-funded campaign for the legislation because dockside gambling is more profitable than having to cruise waterways, promised to try to find another avenue to get the bill passed.

As approved by the House, the bill would have allowed riverboat casinos to remain moored so patrons could come and go as they please. It also would have authorized barge operations along Lake Michigan, which could have meant potentially much larger casinos there.

It would have legalized pull-tabs -- similar to slot machines -- at the pari-mutuel track in Anderson, an off-track betting parlor in Indianapolis and a proposed OTB near French Lick in southern Indiana.

And it would have raised admissions and wagering taxes on dockside or barge casinos, something dockside proponents tried to use as a selling point during a budget session tight on tax revenue.

The Rules Committee amended the bill on Monday. It still would have allowed dockside operations, but counties and cities with riverboats would have to approve referendums first.

It would not have allowed barge operations, or slot-like wagering elsewhere in the state. Taxes on dockside casinos also would be raised, but not as high specified in the House version.

Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, did not take further testimony on the bill before Wednesday's vote. Without comment, all five Republicans voted against it and all three Democrats voted in favor.

Garton, R-Columbus, said he has been consistent in opposing dockside because he considers it an extension of gambling.

He noted that Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon has repeatedly said he opposes dockside, as has Democratic House Speaker John Gregg, D-Sandborn.

"It's just that I don't think it's going to happen this year," Garton said.

Legislation to legalize riverboat casinos in 1993 initially failed to pass the Senate. It was later revived, became entangled with the budget bill that year, and eventually passed both chambers during a contentious special session.

Garton said he would be adamantly opposed to dockside legislation being infused into the budget bill this year, when lawmakers also must deal with the issue of redistricting.

But a subject matter must only pass one chamber to be eligible for conference committee negotiations, and dockside proponents said that still gives them hope.

Some casino operators say dockside is crucial to keeping Indiana's casino industry competitive in the legalized gambling market in the Midwest. Dockside is now legal in Illinois.

"I'm going to continue to press it because it means a lot to the community that I represent," said Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary.

Rogers said reviving the measure this year likely will be more difficult than it was in 1993, when Michael Phillips, the Democratic speaker of the House at the time, favored riverboat casinos.

But, she said, "One of the things different than '93 and today is the fact that these boats have been in operation and have meant a lot to the state in terms of revenue and jobs.

"Hopefully that will eventually play a part in whether or not the state decides to allow dockside gaming."

Joe Domenico, chairman of the Casino Association of Indiana, said his organization could have supported the dockside legislation as amended earlier this week.

Although proponents and opponents were allowed to testify at length on Monday, Domenico said he was disappointed there was no testimony taken before Wednesday's vote.

"We had some folks who wanted to come in and speak about the benefits that gaming has provided throughout the state of Indiana," he said. "I think when you look throughout the state, whether it be north or south, a lot has happened for the good, and we weren't able to represent that today."