They've been meeting for more than a year, but now the state's Riverboat Economic Development Task Force is preparing its recommendations for the upcoming legislative session.
“We bend over backwards to help bring in industries here that mean jobs and tax dollars,” says state Senator Gary Smith of Norco, who serves on the panel. “And then we turn over to gaming and 'oh, it’s got this scarlet letter on it.' And so we have to change that whole mindset of ‘gaming’, and look at it more as an industry.”
And as Donna Jackson with the State Police Gaming Enforcement Division reported last month, the riverboat gaming industry continues to make steady contributions to Louisiana's budgetary bottom line.
“As of November 30, 2017, the 15 operating riverboats generated $167-million in fees for Fiscal Year 2017-2018,” Jackson said of the revenue that's come in since July 1.
Last fiscal year, the state received nearly three times as much revenue from the boats as it did from oil and gas. But the laws governing riverboat gaming haven't been touched since their creation in 1991 – with the exception of a 2001 tweak permitting the boats to no longer sail. They're still limited to 30-thousand square feet of gaming space, which must be placed over water. Meanwhile, slot machines have gotten bigger.
“Being constrained from a square footage standpoint, and being constrained to the physical constructs of the boats themselves, hampers innovation,” Tim Magner with the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce told task force members.
Lisa Johnson, CEO of the Bossier Chamber, says competition from the tribal casinos in Oklahoma is hurting the six casinos in their area, as well.
“It is half the drive from Dallas up to Oklahoma as it is to northwest Louisiana,” she explains.
Casino operators have said they hope the task force will recommend moving the casinos ashore, and/or enlarging the square footage permitted for gaming. The task force has yet to place its bet, and till it does Senator Smith is playing his cards close to the vest.
“What we’re doing here in this task force is really looking at modernization,” he says. “We’re not looking at expansion.”