BATON ROUGE, LA. — Amid charges of vote-rigging and favoritism, lawmakers here have narrowly given their approval to a bill that gives Louisiana backers of casino gambling a beachhead.
Gov. Edwin Edwards, the state's chief advocate of legalized gambling, says: "I am totally committed to making this work in the interests of the city [New Orleans] and the state."
Legislative approval for the casino idea was a major political victory for the Democratic governor, who said: "I firmly believe the $200 million in anticipated revenue will go far with helping us provide a better state government and better state services for people throughout Louisiana...."
But as Mr. Edwards basked in his triumph, casino opponents promised to fight on. Republican Secretary of State Fox McKeithen announced that he would file a suit to prevent construction of a casino, while others are promising to take the casino bill to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the establishment of any legalized gambling is a violation of Louisiana's constitution.
"I think we could actually turn this all around in court," said Sen. John Hainkel (R) of New Orleans, who voted and spoke against the casino bill.
"It is a violation of our present state law; and, besides, it's a terrible thing for New Orleans and Louisiana. We're going to push for a referendum on this thing and argue before the voters the case that any casino will only bring in corruption and congestion."
The new Louisiana law provides for just one casino, located in New Orleans. But its revenues will be applied statewide. It provides that the casino be located at the site of the Rivergate convention center in New Orleans - nowhere else. The center is a 1960s-era facility near where the French Quarter almost meets the Mississippi River. It has mostly gone unused in recent years.
In the days leading up to the lawmakers' vote, anti-casino forces descended on the state capital by the hundreds, arguing that even one casino could attract more than 20,000 people a day to a historic, but frail, part of the city that is already heavily congested. Opponents also said the advent of a casino would attract organized crime, while having limited effect on the state's economy.
Defending the move, Rep. Raymond "LaLa" Lalonde (D) of Carencro said: "We're requiring 18.5 percent of the proceeds, or about $100 million [a year], for the state's coffers. And I personally think we're going to generate about 25,000 jobs, just because of this one casino.
"This is going to be a very good thing for our economy. The opposition says, `It's not going to be that good - it will only be 15,000 jobs.' Well, I'll take 15,000 new jobs anytime."
Others are not so sure. "I think it is foolish to base our economic recovery on a single casino," said author Carolyn Kolb, who has written a popular New Orleans guidebook. "The whole idea of a casino is just really a diversion; it is something that keeps us from thinking about the serious economic problems facing this city and what we should do about them. David Duke was a diversion last year; this year it's the casino issue. Both have distracted us from the business of saving this city."
Edwards, a former three-term governor won a well-publicized return bid for the governorship last year against Mr. Duke, even though he was twice indicted and acquitted on federal racketeering charges in the 1980s.
Minutes after the Legislature passed the casino bill, phone lines on radio talk shows across the state lit up with callers convinced that somehow Edwards was going to personally profit from the casino deal.
Senator Hainkel said: "I don't think most of these fears are without foundation. Edwards will do anything that it takes to get what he wants."
Making matters worse, the official tote board used by lawmakers to record votes was immediately shut down seconds after enough votes were recorded in favor of the casino, prohibiting lawmakers from changing their votes or deciding to abstain, as is the usual parliamentary practice here.
Casino opponents jumped from their seats to protest, and some even ran to the speaker's chair. But others said the such action had to be taken because those opposed to the casino bill were purposely voting in favor of it as part of a plan to confuse the House leadership on the exact vote count.
Another lawmaker, Rep. David Vitter (R) of Metairie, said later in an open letter: "I can't count the number of legislators who told me they have never seen such a spectacle. These members have seen a lot during their years in the House. But even they were stunned by the proceedings."
Even if the casino idea survives a court challenge and a possible voter referendum, said Representative Lalonde, "there will still be people against it, just because Edwards is for it."
A gambler himself, Edwards makes occasional trips to Las Vegas.
Even if the casino idea survives a court challenge and a possible voter referendum, said Lalonde, "there will still be people against it just because Edwards is for it."