Louisiana casino managers relieved by failed Texas gambling bills - Sunday 12th of June 2005

There are several reasons why Mesquite, Texas, resident Todd Cangelose would prefer casinos closer to his hometown. For one, there's wayward deer.The longer the drive, the more likely he'll have another accident like he did in December, when he incurred $6,000 worth of damage to his vehicle before he even reached Shreveport-Bossier City."It's about a 21/2-hour drive, about 180 miles," said Cangelose, who plays in this market about once a month. "I don't want to have to be doing that all the time."Unfortunately for people like Cangelose -- but to the delight of local casino operators -- it'll be 2007 before Texas legislators again consider casinos.

Even attempts to expand Texas gambling in smaller ways, such as through electronic bingo or video lottery terminals, have a slim chance of passing before the end of the session Monday."This market's under enough pressure with the casinos opening up in Oklahoma as well as the opening of L'Auberge du Lac in Lake Charles," said Pat Dennehy, general manager of Horseshoe Casino and Harrah's Louisiana Downs. "That casino has already started advertising in the Dallas area, our primary feeder market."The northwest Louisiana market has been relying more heavily on Texas players, according to an economic impact study released in April.

The Shreveport-Bossier City market saw the percentage of out-of-state visitors increase from 44 percent in 1998 to 74 percent in 2004, according to the report. By comparison, Lake Charles riverboats remained steady, with 65 percent of players coming from out of state in 1998 and 63 percent in 2004.The threat of expanded gambling in Texas has been present since its lottery was approved in 1991, but a few factors made this year seem different. As more states begin allowing casinos, Texas finally had key state leaders, such as the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house, who didn't reject the idea.Lobbyists from the casino industry previously have tried to block casinos in Texas to protect their existing casinos in nearby states. But now, said W. James Jonas III, a lobbyist in Austin for Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., "I think most of them want to make it clear that they're ready to go when Texas is good to go."But while gambling proponents tried until the last minute to attach amendments to different bills, their chances were dwindling.

"The dramatic needs for funding have not presented themselves," Jonas said. "There's not a huge deficit."The bills also faced strong opposition from conservatives, he said.The office of Texas state Sen. Ken Armbrister, which was trying to push electronic bingo and video lottery terminals in the last week, expects the casino issue will return in 2007, said spokesman Mike Sizemore."He represents 19 counties in Texas with 8,000 people, and the calls are overwhelming.

It's in the letters, just overwhelming," Sizemore said. "They're saying, 'Don't just do VLTs, do casinos. We're tired of driving to Louisiana.' "That was the thought of Pam and Jack Johnson of Mexia, Texas, who were playing at Boomtown Casino last week. They visit the market about four or five times a year, driving about 200 miles from central Texas."A lot of (people in Mexia) would like to come down here, but they can't come here because they don't have rides. These are the older people," said Pam Johnson, who runs a cafe. "(Casinos) would be more convenient for people at home. I don't see that it's any different from the lottery or bingo."Cangelose, who works in the grocery business, said he wished his state could collect the tax revenue he's been giving to Louisiana and lower his property taxes."Sure, I want Texas to have something if I'm in Texas -- nothing against Louisiana," he said. "These places generate huge amounts of income for the state, though they do have the drawback of gamblers, people who have problems when they come here."

It will likely be the next regular session in 2007, rather than a shorter special session, when a casino bill is introduced again in Texas, Jonas said."I think there are a number of regulatory, revenue and operational issues that would require a 140-day session and a fairly meaningful interim to get there," he said.In the meantime, Louisiana casino operators can work with lawmakers here to make the state a good place for the gaming industry. That means keeping competitive tax rates so that casinos have more money to advertise and to invest in their properties, said Wade Duty, executive director of the Casino Association of Louisiana.He noted L'Auberge du Lac, the $365 million gambling resort in Lake Charles that opened Thursday."That's a good message, that if you really beef up properties and make them an attractive destination it's not as critical what Texas does," Duty said. "But if you maintain the stranglehold on them and keep them from reinvesting in their properties, it makes them more (vulnerable) to competition."

www.shreveporttimes.com

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