Measure to ease video poker restrictions could come before legislators

Video poker screen with multiple hands.

What’s coming with the Louisiana Legislature in anticipated gaming measures could be a gamble for an industry that’s become a more appreciated tax revenue source with the state’s tight budget, but among them is an effort to ease restrictions on video poker.

For St. Charles Parish, where an estimated $31 million went into these machines in fiscal year 2016-17, any effort to ease restrictions on this form of gaming can affect its economy, too.

Sen. Gary Smith Jr., D-Norco, said legislators may support easing fuel requirements on locations like truck stops and restaurants that decides the number of machines they can have on site. Longtime sites could get grandfathered on the number allowed, making them more competitive with others like off-track betting sites and race tracks.

“These new changes would likely affect the existing facilities and that could mean more revenue generated by video poker,” Smith said.

They could also change how it works, which currently allows playing one hand, he said. But there is an effort that could up the hands to three like video bingo and slot machines.

Smith’s family has video poker operations in the parish, although he said he doesn’t benefit from them.

At last count, the parish’s estimated 225 video poker machines were at 30 locations, including bars, restaurants, hotels, race tracks and truck stops as of 2016-17, according to the Louisiana State Police Gaming Enforcement Division. Each machine took in an average of $139,881 during this fiscal year with an estimated payout of $98,857 per machine.

Smith, as a member of the Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force, toured gambling facilities and saw firsthand the state’s growing knowledge of an industry that hasn’t changed in nearly 25 years in Louisiana.

With the tighter state budget, legislators are increasingly concerned about surrounding states’ efforts to revise outdated state statutes and modernize the gaming industry that could cut into the $900 million tax revenue a year collected in Louisiana. Smith said this is a figure that rivals the oil and gas industry tax revenue.

“There are industries in gaming like March Madness with $10 billion expected to be spent across the U.S. and most of that money is going through illegal gambling sources like bookies,” Smith said. This is why, on the federal level, Congress and federal authorities are looking at legalizing sports betting that is legal only in Nevada.

“Let’s allow it, modernize it and protect the citizens, but those who are adults can choose that kind of entertainment and do it in a regulated environment,” Smith said.

The Legislature has seen numerous gambling measures on the table for consideration, which Smith said is partly due to little movement on them in the last 10 years with Gov. Bobby Jindal, who promised to veto any bills on gambling.

“It delayed Louisiana, while surrounding states changed such as Indian casinos becoming more prevalent in the U.S., as well as the South,” he said.

With Gov. John Bel Edwards in office, he said, “They all jumped in and all asked for changes.”

Most of the bills call for modernization over expansion, Smith said. But he is concerned so many measures introduced at the same time could create a logjam, which could hurt many of these measures’ passage.

“We’re having to come to the realization that Louisiana is a business partner with this industry and it’s been here a number of years now,” he said of the tax revenue. “And, as it increases across the nation, that we have to realize if it doesn’t modernize it’ll start dropping off.”

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