Louisiana Voters May Finally Get a Chance To Vote on Gambling

GAMBLING has become almost as endemic to Louisiana as the state's famous po'-boy sandwiches. With more forms of gambling even than Nevada has, Louisiana is peppered with riverboat and Indian casinos, places to buy lottery tickets and bet on horse racing, and dozens of truck stops, bars, and restaurants with video-poker machines.

Now, however, Louisiana voters may have an opportunity - for the first time since the gambling industry swept into the state in 1991 - to declare "game over" for some games of chance.

Bowing to public outcry about the spread of gambling in the state, the Legislature voted April 18 to allow local-option elections on the issue in November. While the move does not provide for the statewide referendum some antigambling forces had hoped for, it does allow voters, parish by parish, to determine whether to allow video poker and riverboat gambling. New Orleans residents may also decide whether to keep a land-based casino that opened - with the approval of lawmakers but not voters - in 1995.

Taking no chances

In sidestepping a statewide referendum, the Legislature in effect may have averted a complete turnback of gambling (except for the state lottery). In recent years, voters in other states have rejected proposals to introduce or expand gambling - slowing the industry's 20 years of explosive growth.

Still, the $40 billion-a-year industry helps to fill states' coffers at a time when lawmakers are looking for new revenue sources to offset cuts from Washington. Here in Louisiana, taxes and fees on the gambling industry last year contributed $550 million to the state treasury - more than from the oil and gas industries, previously the biggest revenue producers.

Louisiana's transformation into a gambling mecca occurred over the past five years. In 1991, the Legislature legalized video-poker machines and riverboat casinos. The next year, it approved a casino in New Orleans, on the edge of the city's French Quarter.

But the industry's fortunes began to change last year. The New Orleans casino went broke, and its owner, Harrah's, is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings to try to get the dice rolling again at the monstrous, half-finished, red-brick structure. Two of three New Orleans riverboats closed after nine weeks. Adding to the misfortunes, the FBI has been investigating charges that some lawmakers were bribed by gambling-industry executives.

These factors, and the fact that voters were never allowed to vote on gambling, have combined to sour many residents on the industry.

"You've never seen a comprehensive effort like this to allow people to repeal gambling," says C.B. Forgotston Jr., a lawyer and antigambling lobbyist in New Orleans. "You're seeing a growing backlash against gambling here."

'Veneer of corruption'

Still, polls indicate a slight majority of voters would keep riverboat casinos, and residents of New Orleans would keep the land-based casino.

"People are more fed up with the political maneuvering and what they see as a slight veneer of corruption ... than they are with gambling itself," says New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial.

Video poker, however, may provide more of a target for opposition. Bars, restaurants, and motels are permitted as many as three video-poker machines, but truck stops are allowed up to 50. Antigambling groups say these truck stops have become mini-casinos.

Even major backers of the game are having second thoughts, including former Gov. Buddy Roemer, who supported legalizing video poker when he was in office in 1991. While outlets with two or three machines don't bother him, "the trouble is the 50 machines at the video-poker truck stops, which have sprung up all over the state," he says.

In some parishes, though, voters may be reluctant to vote out gambling - even video poker - because of the revenues the industry provides, says economist David Johnson of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Weighing costs and benefits

Others see it differently. "This is not economic development," Mr. Forgotston says. "The social costs that come with compulsive gambling and crime ... mean this may not be any net gain."

Compulsive gambling is a problem, but there are no firm numbers on what the costs are, Mr. Johnson says. "It's hard to imagine the cost is greater than revenues coming in," he says. "Apart from the corruption that has occurred in the licensing process, I don't think crime is a problem."

Antigambling groups view the Legislature's vote to allow local options as something of a defeat. They had hoped Gov. Mike Foster (R), elected last November on a ban-gambling platform, would push lawmakers to vote out gambling entirely.

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