(KPLC) - By Paul Braun
LSU Manship News Service
BATON ROUGE—A Senate committee approved bills that would loosen regulation of the state's 15 riverboat casinos, allowing them to expand 1,200 feet onto the shore and add more gaming tables and slot machines.
The main bill, sponsored by Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, also would drop requirements that the riverboats keep their distinctive paddlewheels.
The bills were approved by the Senate Judiciary B Committee, which Johns chairs, and will move to the Senate floor.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D- New Orleans, took gaming industry representatives to task for their failure to meet self-imposed minority procurement goals.
Peterson challenged Wade Duty, executive director of the Louisiana Casino Association, about the racial makeup of its board of directors and the upper management of the casinos.
"If you don't have a diverse group of people at the highest levels of those organizations, it is very difficult to get there in the second, third and fourth tier of the organization, if there is no conversation at the top," Peterson said. "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."
Duty said 11.6 percent of the casinos' procurements come from minority-owned businesses, a 12 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. He said casino procurement officers have struggled to find minority vendors.
Peterson was not convinced. She asked why the officers had not reached out to the African-American chambers of commerce in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport.
"This is further evidence that the people at the top aren't getting it," Peterson said.
Peterson's criticism came two months after Ronnie Jones, the chairman of the Gaming Control Board, questioned why riverboat casinos in Northwest Louisiana had consistently failed to meet voluntary minority procurement goals.
Johns' bill would allow the riverboats to expand their operations onto the shore and expand the areas they devote to gaming. His bill would define the limit as 2,365 gaming positions, or seats at blackjack tables, roulette wheels or slot machines.
The state's 15 riverboat licenses are spread across four main markets: Shreveport/Bossier City, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Under state law, all 15 boats are required to have an operating paddlewheel, but Johns' bill would drop that rule.
Mississippi already permits riverboats to conduct gaming within 800 feet of the coast. By stretching approve 1,200 feet, Johns' bill would enable Louisiana's riverboats to be larger than the ones in Mississippi and bring in more revenue
Given the budget crisis, Johns said, the state needs the $900 million in taxes that come from the gaming industry.