SADOW: Louisiana Needs Regular Local Option Elections On Gambling

Three years later, it’s déjà vu all over again as the now-closed DiamondJacks Casino currently interred in Bossier City looks to bust a move south, which should open debate on Louisiana’s legal approach to gaming.

Back then, its owner wanted to move the sick man of Louisiana’s floating casinos to the banks of the mighty Amite River in Tangipahoa Parish. In 1996, local option elections in 17 parishes assented to riverboat gambling, although the law already restricted the siting of such vessels to venues with existing boats plus a few others. Although Tangipahoa Parish (barely) assented to riverboat presence, the law hadn’t included the Amite. That initial hurdle the Legislature didn’t cross in 2018, and the uprooting withered.

Now it’s back. With DiamondJacks having closed it doors last year, the owner now wants to head to Slidell. The whole idea previously had been having a boat in that neck of the woods would suck in crowds that presently head to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and its multiple options, even though the journey would be no shorter for many out to the boondocks. Its current manifestation plays to that capture of gamblers and likely would have greater success, locating the boat more centrally to the gambling population in an area with greater infrastructure.

However, the owner faces the same legal problem in reverse: while Lake Pontchartrain made the list of eligible waterways, voters at its eastern end refused to cooperate and didn’t pass casino gaming in St. Tammany Parish. To rectify not only would require again legislative intervention, but also additionally voter approval. Local governments in the parish favor this course.

But this raises an ontological question: should the existence or nonexistence of gambling in parish depend so heavily upon its current presence or absence? That is, shouldn’t all parishes that voted against a form of gambling in 1996 have a chance to revisit that decision? More importantly, shouldn’t sauce for the goose be sauce for the gander: if answering the question of revisiting where prohibited in the affirmative, shouldn’t also up for grabs be that parishes that approved a form of gambling a quarter-century ago have a chance to revoke it?

Rather than pursue a piecemeal policy confined to a parish asking out of gambling restriction and only then acting upon that discrete request, if the Legislature intends to continue allowing local option on this issue it should create a regime that regularly assesses the will of the people in each parish. It should create a schedule of plebiscites to conform to changing attitudes in the various parishes.

So, for example, it could write into law that this fall all 64 parishes must perform a repeat of the 1996 referenda, schedule another for 2050, and mandate one every 25 years after that. This way would reflect genuinely the concept of local option in that it doesn’t lock in a parish to behavior shaped by attitudes from a generation past.

Likely this would expand gambling, which may cause those opposed to it to prefer the current system of fighting in isolated battle from time to time instead of a war every quarter-century. Then again, local governments ever hungering for more revenue always will oppose efforts to roll back gambling in any parish, so this method could be the best shot anti-gambling interests have at expelling gaming in a parish.

Legislators should not grant a special one-off St. Tammany revision attempt. Instead, they should create the infrastructure for an immediate, and subsequent to that periodic, reevaluation of permitting gambling in all parishes individually. If you really want to leave it in the hands of those presently living in a local jurisdiction whether certain forms of gambling may take place within their boundaries, that’s a choice all parishes should have the ability to make on a predictable schedule.

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