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Column: Casino bill could serve as negotiating tool for governor


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Republican Gov. Mike Pence has set up an interesting face-off with lawmakers over gambling legislation that could make for a negotiating tool as the session draws to a close next month.

Pence said last week that he opposes proposals to expand gambling by letting riverboat operations rebuild on land and authorizing live dealers for table games at the horse-track casinos.

Both provisions are included in a Senate-passed bill that is meant to shore up Indiana’s casino industry so it can better compete against gambling operations in neighboring states. Lawmakers are particularly concerned about new casinos in Ohio, which are siphoning thousands of customers away from Indiana locations.

The bill also would give casinos new tax breaks that are designed to help them attract customers and improve their properties.

Whether the bill represents an expansion of gambling is in the eye of the beholder. Indiana’s casino law doesn’t cap gaming positions — the number of slot machines or table games at each property — and so the casinos already can add more gambling options anytime they want.

The riverboats already can build on barges, meaning they really don’t have to be able to motor anywhere. The big advantage to rebuilding on land is that it can be done more cheaply and the gambling operations can be better integrated into other amenities.

And horse tracks already have electronic table games. Sometimes, a person even stands near them, sort of acting like a dealer but never distributing any cards. That’s something the Indiana Gaming Commission has allowed. Giving the racinos live dealers means they might have more table games and more interest in those table games, but it’s not like letting them add a whole new location.

Still, Pence’s stance is understandable. Why would the casinos want these changes if not to encourage more gambling and therefore more money?

Regardless, the governor’s position is interesting, in part because he’s expressed it publicly.

A couple of months into his term, Pence has been reticent to express opinions about bills that are not on his agenda. He’s promised not to be a “legislator-in-chief” and said he’ll see what he thinks about bills once they hit his desk.

He’s focused instead on his plan to cut individual income tax rates, something that legislative leaders have been reluctant to embrace.

In the coming weeks, though, the legislative session will become all about give and take. It could serve Pence well to have expressed some doubt about bills that key members of the General Assembly support.

It gives him room to compromise to get the things like his tax cut that he really wants.

After all, the gambling industry means some $600 million annually for state government. And Pence’s tax cut plan, when fully implemented, costs about $520 million. So he might be willing to negotiate on legislation that could help save the state money or even bolster its bottom line.

As the April 29 deadline for legislative action draws nearer, look for Pence to identify a few other issues that could be keys to future compromises.

The administrative and legislative branches might be controlled by Republicans, but that doesn’t mean those officials agree on everything. All sides need tools for those final negotiations.

Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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