INDIANAPOLIS — Riverboat casinos could eliminate their motors and marine crews — moving them further away from the state’s original concept of cruising gambling boats — under legislation the Indiana House passed Tuesday.
Senate Bill 47, approved 58-41, now moves to Gov. Mitch Daniels’ to be signed or vetoed. It already passed the Senate.
The legislation requires that 10 of the state’s 13 casinos still float on water, but they would no longer have to be navigable. Instead, the bill allows them to be permanently docked.
Casinos that make the change could save as much as $1 million annually — money that supporters said could be invested in other projects and amenities.
The bill also allows casinos to host card tournaments in their hotels, pavilions and convention space, rather than permitting them only on the gambling floor.
“The purpose of this bill is to put riverboat gaming communities in a position to benefit to their maximum potential,” said Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Lawrenceburg, who has three casinos — Hollywood in Dearborn County, Grand Victoria in Ohio County and Belterra in Switzerland County — in his House district.
McMillin said planned casinos in Ohio and potential gambling options in Kentucky mean Indiana’s operations need more flexibility. “It’s imperative we be prepared to compete,” he said.
Casino owners have generally been coy about which boats might make the navigational change.
But officials at Horseshoe Southern Indiana in Harrison County have said they don’t plan to eliminate their motors or crew. That’s because the boat’s high-traffic location on the river means it needs to have the ability to move.
The change could be most popular in Southeast Indiana, where the casinos are facing competition from Ohio casinos to be located in Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland.
A study conducted last year found the Ohio casinos could shift more than $100 million in gambling tax revenue out of Indiana if the state made no changes in its casino industry.
The state’s 10 casino boats were authorized by a 1993 law that required them to be navigable and self-propelled and aimed to bring economic development to some poorer areas of Indiana while attracting gamblers from other states. That’s why the 10 casinos are located on the Ohio River and Lake Michigan.
Later, the state OK’d a land-based casino at French Lick and allowed the state’s horse tracks at Anderson and Shelbyville to add slot casinos.
The original law required the casino boats to go on cruises several times daily. In 2002, however, the General Assembly changed the law to allow the casinos to remain docked, a move that made gambling more convenient to customers and boosted tax revenue.
Then two years ago, the Indiana Gaming Commission changed its rules to allow new casinos to be constructed more like buildings than boats. The newest gambling venues at Lawrenceburg and Hammond are built under these new rules and, although they do have motors and crews, they are essentially barges.
Two area lawmakers – Reps. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, and Matt Ubelhor, R-Linton – voted against SB 47 on Tuesday.
Clere said the General Assembly has been incrementally moving the casinos from boats toward land-based operations without a larger discussion about whether that’s a good idea and, if it is, whether the casinos are appropriately located.
There is no casino in Clark and Floyd counties, where voters initially rejected the idea in referendums. Later — after all 10 of the riverboat licenses were awarded and the casinos opened — Clark County officials held another referendum on the issue that passed.
“We see all the signs of increasing competition,” Clere said. “It’s our responsibility as legislators to make gaming policy for the long term and for two decades we’ve been making gaming policy in a reactive and ad hoc fashion.”Reps. Dave Cheatham, D-North Vernon; Steve Davisson, R-Salem; Terry Goodin, D-Crothersville; Rhonda Rhoads, R-Corydon; and Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, voted for the bill.
Reporter Lesley Stedman Weidenbener can be reached at (317) 444-2780.