(The Center Square) – A Louisiana House committee voted Tuesday to allow a referendum on a casino company’s bid to move its license from Bossier City to St. Tammany Parish.
The House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice voted, 8-2, to advance House Bill 497, which seeks to let St. Tammany voters decide whether a casino will be allowed in their parish. The Louisiana Gaming Control Board also would have to approve the move.
Senate Bill 213, which has the same goal, is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Finance committee. A judiciary committee advanced the bill earlier in the session, though that vote has been questioned because the chairman who cast the tie-breaking vote is married to a lobbyist for the project.
Pacific Peninsula Entertainment, or P2E, wants to relocate its casino license, which is one of 15 in the state. The company closed DiamondJacks Casino in Bossier City last year.
The Bossier City/Shreveport market is considered oversaturated. Supporters hope moving the license to southeast Louisiana will attract local gamblers who otherwise visit casinos in Mississippi while not detracting much from the New Orleans market.
P2E said its proposed $250 million facility in Slidell could support 1,900 jobs. The change could boost tax revenue by more than $60 million, though the Legislative Fiscal Office said possible revenue is difficult to estimate “due to a lack of specific plans and information.”
Opponents expressed concerns about an increase in problem gambling and prostitution in their area, as well as lower property values near the casino, while also raising doubts about the operator’s competence. They said the campaign leading up to the vote would not be a fair fight, pitting average residents against deep-pocketed gambling interests.
Most committee members, even those skeptical of the project and gambling in general, however, said they wanted to give parish residents the right to make the decision.
The committee also had a long debate Tuesday about House Bill 67, which calls for decriminalizing prostitution. Rep. Mandie Landry, the New Orleans Democrat who authored the bill, said she wasn’t calling for full legalization, only to stop law enforcement from arresting adults for consensual behavior.
Advocates for sex workers argued that prohibition of prostitution drives exploitation and involuntary trafficking of people, who may not feel they can go to the police because they have been engaged in illegal activity. Opponents argued against decriminalization on moral grounds and said the change would increase demand for prostitution, creating incentives for traffickers to increase the supply.
Landry voluntarily deferred her bill to avoid a committee vote that likely would have killed it. She suggested her measure could be converted into a proposal to study the issue.
The committee also amended and advanced House Bill 652. Rep. Cedric Glover, the Shreveport Democrat who authored the bill, wanted to cap fines at $50 for possessing small amounts of marijuana and eliminate escalating penalties that could lead to a felony conviction.
“The objective here is to decriminalize,” he said.
Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, said he sympathized with the goal of eliminating the possibility of a felony but said he didn’t want the fine to be smaller than one given for an expired inspection sticker. Members amended the bill to leave in place the current penalty for possession, which is a fine up to $300 and/or up to 15 days in jail, but endorsed Glover’s goal of eliminating the possible felony for repeat offenses.