Another Viewpoint: State Budget Committee keeps questions of Indiana Gaming Commission secret

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette

As part of a new legislative effort to limit the rule-making authority of state agencies, departments critical to government operations justified their fee and penalty schedules before the State Budget Committee last month.

Given an opportunity to add more transparency on how such departments raise revenue through fee collections, Republican members of the committee curiously threw a shroud of suspicion over the Indiana Gaming Commission.

In the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 1623, a measure requiring fee-imposing agencies to first win the State Budget Committee’s approval of fee schedules. Without the go-ahead, state agencies will be unable to impose fines and penalties in the next calendar year.

Ten departments presented nearly 50 fees, ranging from penalties for animal-quarantine violations to licensure exam fees for teachers. The Indiana Gaming Commission, which oversees 12 casinos that raked in $2.5 billion from July 2021 through June 2022 and sent about $700 million of that total in taxes to the state, was not invited to the commission’s Nov. 14 meeting.

“There were just some questions that haven’t been answered that we’ve asked, and so we feel we want those questions answered first before we move forward,” Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Mishawaka, said at the meeting.

The problem, according to members of the gaming commission, is that they weren’t aware there were questions to be answered.

Republican State Budget Committee chair Jeff Thompson and Mishler sent their questions directly to the gaming commission three days after that meeting, Jennifer Reske, deputy director of the gaming commission, told The Journal Gazette Friday.

The gaming commission asked to be on the budget committee’s October agenda for approval of its fees, but was told no agencies would testify.

“And then when we saw we weren’t on the meeting in November, we tried to work to figure out what additional information we needed to provide,” Reske told The Journal Gazette. That inquiry wasn’t made to the gaming commission until the end of last week, she said, despite Mishler’s public pronouncement.

The Journal Gazette filed a public records request with the gaming commission for the Thompson-Mishler letter. Our requests for interviews with State Budget Committee members Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, and Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, were declined.

“Sen. Garten is still doing his due diligence by reading through everything the (gaming commission) has proposed and combing through data,” Garten’s press secretary, Kellyn Harrison, said in an email. “Therefore, if you are interested in his questions, he encourages you to tune in to the next State Budget Committee meeting.”

We’re planning on it. Indiana’s gaming industry is a huge contributor to the state’s bottom line. In fiscal year 2022, gaming and sports wagering generated $691.4 million in state taxes, according to the gaming commission.

As of June 30, 2022, gaming has added more than $16.6 billion in tax support since the Indiana Riverboat Gaming Act was passed in 1993.

That’s revenue Indiana would likely never be able to replace. So why would Republican members of the budget committee put off approving the Indiana Gaming Commission’s fee schedule?

They won’t say, which is a slap in the face to Hoosiers who value government transparency.