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Louisiana sports betting clears first hurdle

Legal sports betting has cleared its first hurdle in Louisiana. The state Senate Judiciary B Committee voted 3-1 Tuesday (April 23) to approve legislation to permit sports betting in the state.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, was the lone vote against the proposal, Senate Bill 153. Peterson revealed earlier this year that she struggles with a gambling addiction.

If the bill is approved, Louisiana voters would determine the fate of sports betting this fall on a parish-by-parish basis. The earliest sports betting could be in place is January 2020, said Ronnie Jones, head of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.

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The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, would allow sports wagering on professional and collegiate sports at Louisiana’s four horse racetracks with slot machines, 15 riverboat casinos and at Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans. Betting on high school, video game and electronic sports events would not be allowed. Sports betting would be limited to gamblers 21 and older.

Martiny said sports betting could generate anywhere from $40 million to $60 million annually, though there are questions about whether those targets are feasible. Mississippi is closing out its first year with sports betting, which has produced less than half the tax revenue projected.

Martiny said he is willing to dedicate most tax revenue sports betting produces to early childhood education programs. Gov. John Bel Edwards supports that proposal. A small portion of the revenue would also go toward organizations that address compulsive gambling.

The horse racing industry also wants some sports betting revenue to increase purses for its races. Some in the Legislature want to allow sports betting via smartphones and tablets. Martiny said smartphone betting and sweetening horse racing stakes would doom his proposal and urged lawmakers not to attach amendments on those issues.

He agreed to confine sports betting on mobile devices to the “gambling area” of riverboat casinos, racetracks and Harrah’s in New Orleans. That would make sports betting in Louisiana more restrictive than in Mississippi, where bets can be placed from anywhere on a casino resort property, such as poolside or at a restaurant.

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The video poker industry lobbied Martiny not to allow mobile sports betting throughout casinos and racetrack facilities. Alton Ashy, lead lobbyist for the video poker operators, said it would be unfair because his industry isn’t offered the same flexibility. Video poker operators have machines at truck stop casinos, restaurants and bars, but not at the state’s larger gambling facilities.

The issue of mobile sports betting raised red flags for Peterson, who repeatedly alluded to her own struggles with gambling during the hearing. She said she worried about college kids who would be able to bet from their couches, without even having to go to a casino.

Martiny’s promise to dedicate sports betting revenue to early childhood education programs could help the measure pass in a statehouse that is wary of gambling. Lawmakers are desperate to find a way to increase early childhood education, especially since the state is scheduled to lose federal funding for those programs.

The companion sports betting tax bill to Martiny’s proposal is House Bill 587, sponsored by Rep. Jospeh Marino, I-Gretna. That bill levies a 12 percent tax on sports betting. There would also be an annual sports wagering fee for operators of $50,000 and another permit fee for operators of $100,000 that lasts five years. It dedicates up to $100,000 generated annually to the state’s compulsive gambling programs. The rest of the money would go to early childhood education.

Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, has also authored two sports betting tax bills, though he did not work with Martiny. One of his proposals would allow for an 11 percent state tax plus a $5,000 annual licensing fee for operators. It would also allow local governments where sports betting takes place to raise up to 4 percent in local taxes on the new type of gambling. The first $100,000 in state revenue would go to compulsive gambling, with the rest of the state money going to early childhood education.

The second Abramson proposal would tax state sports wagering at 8 percent on the state level with a $5,000 annual licensing fee. That bill would also allow local government to tax sports wagering up to four percent. Half of the state money collected would go to the early childhood education funding and the other half would go for general state funding purposes.

On top of sports betting, state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, has sponsored legislation that would allow local governments to charge fees on slot machines and other existing gambling for the purpose of funding early childhood education. Senate Judiciary B Committee also approved his legislation, though it’s not clear how much money it could raise. No fiscal analysis has been done of Senate Bill 196 yet.

Voting in favor of sports betting were Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, and Gary Smith, D-Norco.

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