By Mitch Rabalais & Jeremy Alford
By the mid-1980s, gas prices were at record lows as foreign oil flooded the marketplace and Louisiana, having collected millions in severance taxes during the preceding decade, was now facing massive budget deficits.
In response, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards put forward an ambitious package of bills during the 1986 regular session, including several that relied heavily on money that would be generated by gambling. That response may also sound somewhat familiar, especially given the fiscal challenges faced by Louisiana’s current governor of a similar name and the large slate of gambling-related bills that were debated by lawmakers this spring.
The situation, however, was more desperate 32 years ago — and the politics radically different. Edwards had called for the establishment of land-based casinos in the Orleans Parish region, a new statewide lottery and gambling cruises along the Mississippi River. He worked the plan hard, telling voters from the stump that the Legislature’s unwillingness to increase taxes left the state with a limited number of viable options.
But the plan was overshadowed by Edwards’ legal problems. He was bouncing between two federal trials at the time, having been indicted on charges related to alleged bribes and kickbacks in return for hospital construction contracts. During court recesses, Edwards would try to lobby legislators from a payphone in the federal courthouse, according to Tyler Bridge’s Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards.
Edwards was likewise polling at an all-time low, which made any ideas he pushed toxic. So even though he would eventually be acquitted, Edwards’ gambling bills never made it out of committee. Meanwhile, over in Mississippi, a decline in tourism was bankrupting businesses along the Gulf Coast.
In Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008, authors Jere Nash and Andy Taggart recount how a group of entrepreneurs in Biloxi created a gambling “cruise to nowhere.” Passengers could travel aboard a boat and, once three miles out from the coast, gamble in federal waters.
The boats were immediately popular and the owners made a hefty profit. The only hiccup was that a court ruled that federal waters started three miles off of a state’s barrier islands, not the coast. This decision made the “cruise to nowhere” model financially untenable.
The proprietors reached out to their legislators in Jackson. They made a bet that the Gulf Coast delegation could sell the legalization of gambling boats in the Mississippi Sound as an economic development measure during the 1989 regular session there.
To pass the bill, the delegation needed only a simple majority of legislators present. As such, several prominent gambling opponents were convinced to “take a walk” when the bill came up for consideration. It narrowly passed, and was signed into law by Gov. Ray Mabus.
Back in Baton Rouge the following year, then-Gov. Buddy Roemer was trying to fill budget gaps after his proposed changes to the tax code were defeated. Unwilling to tinker with taxes again, the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment to establish a statewide lottery, and voters approved the idea.
While Roemer grappled with the lottery, Mississippi lawmakers were considering an expansion of their newly legalized gambling industry. Small towns along the Mississippi River had seen the success that the Gulf Coast had experienced with cruising casino boats and wanted to get in on the action. Many of the same prominent gambling opponents were again convinced to “take a walk” when the expansion measure came up for consideration.
It looked like the bill was going to pass until one legislator pointed out a major problem with the cruising casino boats, caused by the meanders of the Mississippi River. Because the river’s channel changes course and state lines are set, whole portions of the river were located entirely in either Mississippi or Louisiana. The boundaries weren’t clearly marked, and the pilots struggled to keep their boats in Mississippi waters.
With gambling still illegal in Louisiana, this could have had serious consequences. For instance, if a riverboat left Natchez and accidentally crossed into Concordia Parish, law enforcement could have impounded the vessel and arrested everybody it held.
This discovery necessitated a quick amendment to the bill, which allowed dockside gambling along the Mississippi River. It passed. The following January, Gov. Mabus called a special session to legalize dockside gambling on the Gulf Coast as well.
By the 1991 regular session in Baton Rouge, Louisiana lawmakers had taken note of the developments in Mississippi and many feared that tourists would begin flocking to the new casinos in the Magnolia State. “We are losing our competitive edge,” said then-Rep. Francis Heitmeier, based on an account in How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation by Michael Nelson and John Lyman Mason.
Heitmeier proposed establishing 15 riverboat casinos that would cruise the Mississippi, Red and Calcasieu rivers and Lake Pontchartrain. Then-Rep. Peppi Bruneau was likewise pushing a measure to legalize video poker in bars and truck stops throughout the state. The two gambling bills did not come up for final consideration until the last day of the regular session — and an impassioned plea from Bruneau helped them pass in the waning hours.
Signing the riverboat casino bill into law a few days later, Roemer said, “We are the tourist center of the Mississippi Valley, and we should have it.”
In the 1992 regular session, a land-based casino was likewise approved for New Orleans, albeit after some creative maneuvers from then-Speaker John Alario and House Clerk Butch Speer.
Meanwhile in Mississippi, officials there were cutting the ribbon on sparkling new casinos all across their state. Louisiana, on the other hand, was still figuring out how to collect bids and dole out licenses.
They Said It
“I can’t count votes and I can’t read numbers.”
—House Ways and Means Chair Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, on the topic of session sleep deprivation
“Yeah, I want him to be the head Republican. I do. I just want him to be in the minority.”
—Congressman Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, on U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, on CBS’ Face The Nation