Panel supports allowing Indiana riverboat casinos move onto land, live dealers at horse tracks

A proposal to allow Indiana's riverboat casinos to move onto land and permit live dealers for table games at two horse track casinos won endorsement Thursday from a legislative committee, renewing debate over what steps the state should take to help the struggling gambling sites.

The House Public Policy Committee voted 10-2 in favor of the bill, which supporters say is needed as Indiana's casino industry faces growing competition from neighboring states.

State tax revenue from Indiana's 13 casinos has declined by about 28 percent, or $185 million, since 2010, with the state revenue forecast projecting an additional 12 percent drop in the coming two years.

Committee Chairman Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, said Indiana needs to help protect jobs in the casino industry.

"This is an opportunity to say, 'We want to try to do something like we would for any other industry or another other business in our state that was struggling,'" Dermody said. "But know this, if we do nothing, it won't stay status quo, it will continue to decline."

Similar proposals have failed in the Legislature in recent years, and casino advocates still must overcome potential opposition from Republican Gov. Mike Pence and some legislators who are against steps they regard as an expansion of gambling.

The bill would give the 10 riverboats along Lake Michigan and the Ohio River the option to build new on-land casinos on property near their current locations. Owners of the Evansville and Gary casinos have especially pushed for that change, saying they could build better facilities that could attract more customers.

The proposal would also allow the two horse track casinos — Hoosier Park in Anderson and Indiana Grand in Shelbyville — to have live dealers for table games such as blackjack that are now run by computers.

While those casinos argue allowing live dealers would attract gamblers who are wary of games run by computers, the head of southern Indiana's Rising Star casino said it was worried about its viability with the possible loss of gamblers from the Indianapolis area.

Daniel Lee, CEO of Las Vegas-based Full House Resorts, said the company couldn't afford to build a new casino in the Ohio River city of Rising Sun, where it is the largest employer with about 600 workers.

Lee pointed to a 42 percent drop in revenue at Rising Star since the 2013 of a casino about 40 miles to the east in downtown Cincinnati.

Lee said provisions in the bill that would require the horse track casinos to give up some table game stations in exchange for allowing live dealers didn't change his view that they were going into a new type of gambling.

"If it wasn't an expansion of gaming, they wouldn't be asking for it," he said.

The bill now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee, which will review proposed tax changes before deciding whether to advance it to the full House for consideration.

Pence has consistently said he isn't seeking to scale back Indiana's casino industry, but doesn't support any expansion. He hasn't detailed what he considers an expansion.

Dermody said the proposal he's sponsoring wasn't aimed at helping any particular casino and that he hoped proposed tax incentives would lead to construction of more hotels and entertainment venues.

"I don't think we can ignore opportunity to put some commonsense measures in that help the industry as a whole," he said. "I think creating jobs, creating a destination point, are good things for Indiana."