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Louisiana senators remove state’s top gaming regulator

Louisiana senators have refused to confirm Gov. John Bel Edwards’ re-appointment of the state’s top gambling regulator.

The move comes at a time when the gaming sector, which provides a significant chunk of state revenue, is facing serious challenges on multiple fronts.

Ronnie Jones has chaired the Louisiana Gaming Control Board since 2013 and has been involved in regulating the industry since casinos and video poker were approved in the state during the 1990s.

“I am deeply disappointed that Ronnie Jones was not confirmed after his decades of service and experience in gaming regulation,” Edwards said in a prepared statement. “Because of his time with Louisiana State Police, as a consultant and as a long-time member and chair of the board, he was uniquely qualified to fairly and ethically lead the group that regulates the gaming industry.”

It is widely believed New Orleans Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who chairs the state’s Democratic Party, personally blocked the Democratic governor’s appointments. The Senate traditionally has let members personally block confirmation of appointments from their home districts to boards and commissions, and Jones lives in Peterson’s district.

The Center Square has reached out to Peterson’s office and will update this story if she responds. The Associated Press reported that Peterson declined comment through a Senate staff member, citing the confidentiality of the confirmation process.

Last year, Peterson was issued a misdemeanor summons for violating a self-imposed ban on entering casinos. Louisiana State Police allow problem gamblers to sign up for a “self-exclusion” list. When her violation was reported by a media outlet, she went public with what she described as her gambling addiction.

Senators decide whether to confirm appointments in closed-door executive sessions. Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Republican who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she could not share information about “confidential discussions.”

Jones often was the only member of the board who asked questions during meetings, and those questions often were pointed. Gaming company officials must seek board approval for changes to their properties or when a property changes hands.

Though revenue varies from year to year, casinos are worth more than $700 million annually to the state. Add up all forms of legal gaming, including the state-run lottery, and it comes to something close to $1 billion for a state general fund of less than $10 billion.

The sector is heavily taxed and regulated, and lawmakers sometimes are resistant to letting companies have tools they’d like to use to compete. For example, legislators have so far refused to legalize sports betting at casinos, an amenity casinos in neighboring states can offer.

However, during the just-completed regular session, lawmakers sent to the governor’s desk a proposal to allow voters to legalize sports betting in their parishes. Legal sports betting would be a new area for the gaming board to regulate.

The industry’s revenue has long been falling, and casinos were shut down by Edwards’ “stay at home” order meant to control the COVID-19 outbreak. Casinos are open again at reduced capacity, and owners are trying to adjust.

Other than one land-based New Orleans property, casinos in Louisiana have long been required to be adjacent to a waterway and housed in “riverboats” that never go anywhere, a throwback to a time when the casinos were actual riverboats that cruised. Lawmakers recently began allowing companies to move a bit inland, and the board would have to approve those plans.

Senators also declined to confirm Edwards’ appointment of former legislator Walt Leger as chairman of the Ernest N. Morial-New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority, a key element of the city’s tourism industry that faces grave uncertainty amid the pandemic.

Leger is a former state lawmaker from New Orleans who was one of Edwards’ top allies in the legislature. He was a “key partner” in the operations of a medical monitoring system for COVID-19 patients the state ran at the Convention Center, Edwards said.

“It’s especially disturbing and unfortunate that during this time of great uncertainty, when we need experienced leadership to help our gaming industry continue to reopen safely and for New Orleans’ tourism and convention industry to recover, two highly qualified and experienced appointees were unexpectedly blocked,” Edwards said.

Senators during this year’s regular session confirmed hundreds of appointees and did not confirm 11. Here is the list of appointees who were not confirmed:

  • Todd L. Sterling, Advisory Board of the Old State Capitol
  • Patricia Fairchild, Louisiana State Cotton Museum
  • Jean C. Oswalt, Louisiana State Cotton Museum
  • Fred E. Bass, Department of Agriculture & Forestry
  • Sajal A. Roy, Louisiana Board of Pharmacy
  • Adam C. Buras, Board of Examiners of Bar Pilots for the Port of New Orleans
  • Benjamin Dupuy, Board of Directors of the Louisiana State Museum
  • Walter J. “Walt” Leger III, Ernest N. Morial-New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority
  • Ronald B. “Ronnie” Jones, Louisiana Gaming Control Board
  • Brent Newman, Louisiana Advisory Commission on Pesticides
  • Sandra Shilstone, Board of Directors of the Louisiana State Museum

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