Maybe our state legislators just can't help themselves. Maybe legalized gambling is just too deeply rooted in our state government, and too firmly hitched to our economy.
In any event, it appears that the Louisiana Legislature simply cannot convene without putting organized gambling on the table. That speaks volumes about their priorities -- and the extent of gambling's political influence in Louisiana.
Last week, the pro-administration House Ways and Means Committee voted 8-5 for House Bill 144, which included an amendment that would allow first-ever tax breaks for gambling interests under the Louisiana Quality Jobs (LQJ) program. Proposed by state Rep. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, whose legislative district includes riverboat casinos, the amendment was attached to the centerpiece of Gov. Mike Foster's economic development agenda as it went to the House floor for a full vote last week.
Capitol insiders last week correctly predicted that the gambling-inclusion amendment would die quickly, if only because lawmakers were anxious to adjourn earlier than the April 19 deadline to end their current extraordinary session. All the same, gambling legislation should not have come up at all in the special session, much less made it to the House floor.
At the beginning of the session, we marveled how, for the first time in years, gambling was absent from the nearly 200 items in the governor's "call" -- the issues he sets for lawmakers in the special session ("The Best Fresh Start," April 2). Gov. Mike Foster reportedly wanted to keep gambling bills out of the special session to bolster the prospects of his economic development agenda, which included dedicated funding to help lure the Charlotte Hornets pro basketball team to the downtown Arena and to keep the Saints football team in New Orleans.
Make no mistake: we are not morally opposed to gambling. But after more than a decade of pro-gambling legislation, we saw an opportunity for the governor and legislators to pass true economic development projects sans new gambling proposals. Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a government watchdog group, shared our enthusiastic welcome for the respite. "I was wrong," Brandt says now. "I was as shocked and surprised as you were. I think [the amendment] was entirely inappropriate."
We agree. Administered by the state Department of Economic Development, the intent of the LQJ program is to attract and retain businesses with good-paying jobs that might be discouraged by Louisiana's political corruption, anti-business tax structure, dismal education and environmental records.
To qualify for the rebates, companies must hire at least five new employees, have an average wage at least 1.5 times greater than the federal minimum wage, provide basic health care, and increase their payrolls by at least $500,000 over a three-year period.
Businesses that satisfy those requirements would get a state quarterly tax rebate equal to 5 percent of their total payroll. Companies that meet other standards for new jobs and pay at least double the federal minimum wage would get a 6 percent rebate.
Historically, and quite rightly, gambling has been excluded from this worthwhile tax incentive program. "Legalized gambling simply does not fit that criterion," says New Orleans attorney and casino critic C.B. Forgotston. "Legalized gambling enterprises are government-granted monopolies that bid on a license to operate in Louisiana. Further, they cannot simply move to, or expand, in another state."
Here again, we agree. Countering the view expressed by Forgotston, The Shreveport Times newspaper uses flawed logic in lending its editorial support to Rep. Jackson's amendment: "There's no good reason to exclude gambling companies from the program, period. It is an industry made legal by the Legislature. It employs thousands of Louisiana residents and further provides jobs in companies that service and supply the casinos, hotels and restaurants."
The Times further suggests that the gambling-inclusion amendment would allow state tax credits to be distributed "even-handedly." Gambling, the newspaper argues, certainly qualifies under accepted "tourism and entertainment clusters" recognized by the state law.
The Times should re-consider its interpretation of the purpose of the tax-incentive program. Also, it should note that the hard-working professionals and organizations in Shreveport that would still be barred from the tax exemption if Rep. Jackson's amendment were to pass include retailers, doctors, dentists, real estate agents, automobile rental and leasing companies, and nonprofit organizations -- to name just a few.
Sometimes it seems our elected officials just can't help themselves when it comes to gambling issues. When that happens, the media as well as average citizens ought to speak out loudly. We have all learned an important lesson in the current special session: the promise of a gambling-free Louisiana Legislature is just too good to be true.