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Indiana House backs allowing on-land moves for riverboat casinos, live dealers at horse tracks

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INDIANAPOLIS — A proposal to ease Indiana's gambling laws by permitting riverboat casinos to move onto land and allowing live dealers for table games at the two horse track casinos won approval by a wide margin Wednesday in the Indiana House.

The bill that supporters say is needed to help Indiana's casinos as they face growing competition from neighboring states cleared the House in a 76-19 vote despite word of Gov. Mike Pence's opposition to the live dealer provisions, which he considers an expansion of gambling in the state.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, said he wants to work with the governor on the issue, but was clearly encouraged by the vote margin.

"That's a strong indication of support for the bill," he said. "I think that sends a message, at least from the House side."

Indiana's casinos have seen big declines in business and the loss of hundreds of jobs in recent years as more gambling options have become available in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

The bill would give the 10 riverboats along Lake Michigan and the Ohio River the option to build new on-land casinos on property near their current locations. Owners of the Evansville and Gary casinos have especially pushed for that change, saying they could build better facilities that could attract more customers.

The proposal also would allow the two horse track casinos — Hoosier Park in Anderson and Indiana Grand in Shelbyville — to have live dealers for table games such as blackjack that are now run by computers.

The bill also offers state tax incentives to casinos for building new facilities, including hotels, performance venues and restaurants.

House members voted Tuesday to put off proposed casino tax changes that could've cost local governments tens of millions of dollars in revenues in favor of having a special committee study those issues before next year's legislative session.

Democratic Rep. Gail Riecken of Evansville said she believed having a broad review of such tax changes was needed because of the huge potential impact on communities where the casinos are located. "We look at it as our money and our economic development money," she said.

The question of Pence's stance on any casino law changes looms. He consistently has said he isn't seeking to scale back Indiana's casino industry, but hasn't detailed publicly what he considers an expansion. Legislative leaders said this week Pence indicated he is against allowing live dealers at the horse track casinos.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long of Fort Wayne said Wednesday he wasn't bothered by allowing riverboats to move onto land since they've not been required to leave their docks for several years. The additional live dealers will be a stickier question as the Senate takes the bill up in the coming weeks.

"If you want to talk about where's the one that gives people pause, that seem be that threshold," Long said. "We'll have to figure that out."

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