House Monday 041519

Howard Greninger/Tribune-Star

Indiana House members prepare for Monday's session. A bill that could bring a casino to Vigo County cleared the House on a vote of 78-15.

A bill that could create a casino license for Vigo County passed the Indiana House on Tuesday by a 78-15 vote.

Senate Bill 552, originally authored by Republican Sens. Jon Ford of Terre Haute and Mark Messmer of Jasper, now heads to a conference committee where House and Senate members likely will refine the bill further before it goes to Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Rep. Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville, cast the lone no vote among Wabash Valley members of the House. Borders has said he supports neither gambling in general nor its expansion in Indiana.

Supporting the bill were Reps. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute; Bob Heaton, R-Terre Haute; Alan Morrison, R-Brazil; and Beau Baird, R-Greencastle.

Morrison predicted further changes for the bill and said it ultimately might not bring a casino to Terre Haute, at least how the language now stands.

“Unfortunately the way this bill is written now, I don’t think a 14th [gaming] license will make it through the process,” Morrison said on the House floor. “I don’t think this will happen. We have cornered Vigo County into basically not getting this casino.”

“I think the language in the Senate [version] is more effective,” he said, adding changes will have to be made in conference committee.

Morrison also voiced concern of an amendment to aid West Baden.

“We have to stop subsidizing West Baden,” he said in reference to an amendment to fund maintenance of a hotel there and to aid any worker there that loses a job as a result of increased gaming competition elsewhere in the state.

Republican Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, who supported the bill, also said some work needs to be done. The bill, however, would bring 650 jobs and up to $30 million in new wagering taxes to the state, he said.

Gaming brings in $850 million a year to the state, said Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson.

The bill, while it needs work in committee, represents a framework to regulate sports wagering, she said on the House floor.

After the vote, Sen. Ford said he was glad the bill passed the House.

“I would like to see the bill come out of the conference committee closer to what was in the Senate,” Ford said. “I think we will work out something. We passed a big hurdle and are alive for another day. I think we will work something out where Terre Haute will have an opportunity” for a casino.

John Keeler, attorney for Spectacle Entertainment, said his company will be watching the next step.

“On behalf of Spectacle, we are very pleased with the vote total,” he said. “I think everybody recognizes the bill will be changed a lot in conference [committee] and we are just hoping to have some input in that process and [that] what evolves turns out to be a good product.”

“I think there has been some posturing between the two houses in terms of setting up the dynamics for a good negotiation,” Keeler said.

Keeler said “there is a widely held opinion that the number of gaming licenses should not be expanded.”

That said, Keeler said he thinks Terre Haute would be served by moving one of Spectacle’s license to Terre Haute.

“We would love to come and make an investment in Terre Haute what we think would be good for the community and the state as well,” he said.

Spectacle Gaming LLC this year acquired the two Majestic Star casino licenses. Spectacle’s leading partners are Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson and Rod Ratcliff, former CEO and chairman of Centaur Gaming.

Ford’s original legislation appeared built to allow one of those two licenses — now operating on a Lake Michigan harbor in Gary, Indiana — to move inland and closer to Interstate 80/94, and the other to relocate to Vigo County.

But, after revamp in the House Ways and Means Committee, the legislation now calls for Spectacle to surrender a license if they move off of the harbor and for Terre Haute to get its own distinct license under a competitive bidding process.

However, Spectacle’s remaining license would allow nearly 2,700 gaming positions, up from about 1,700 at the two existing casinos on the harbor.

Additionally, Spectacle would pay the state $50 million if it moves away from Lake Michigan.

Some see the scenario of a larger casino off the interstate in Northwest Indiana plus a new casino in Terre Haute as a significant expansion of legal gambling in Indiana — especially as the bill also allows for sports wagering at casinos, racinos and satellite facilities.

John Michael Major, president of the Vermillion County Council, was at the Statehouse on a another bill but voiced support for Terre Haute. Major said that council on April 8 passed a resolution in support of the gaming bill to bring a casino to Terre Haute.

That’s because the project will need about 250 construction workers and will have 400 casino jobs when opened, he said.

“We want to give support to our neighbors to the south because ... we are stronger together,” Major said. “What is good for Vermillion County is good for Vigo County and what is good for Vigo County is good for Vermillion County.

SB 552 made it through second reading in the House last Thursday with relatively minor changes after significant amendment last Tuesday in House Ways and Means.

As now written, Senate Bill 552 would create a gaming license for Vigo County should a public referendum in November or May 2020 be successful.

If the referendum were to pass, legislation would require the formation of a Vigo County casino advisory board. The board would be responsible for evaluating proposals for a casino in Vigo County.

The board would then forward its recommendations to the Indiana Gaming Commission. The commission would select the top three proposals and open an auction process.

The auction would be at an advertised meeting of the gaming commission and would see each of the finalists submit one bid. The highest of the three would be awarded the license. It requires a minimum bid of $25 million.

It appears Spectacle would be allowed to compete for the Vigo County license should it choose to. In addition to Spectacle, Las Vegas-based Full House, which operates the Rising Star Casino and Resort in Rising Sun, Indiana, also has expressed interest in a Terre Haute-area casino.

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