Casino boat in St. Tammany? Group looking for lawmaker to file bill for referendum

Thursday 5th March 2020

The possibility of a gambling boat coming to St. Tammany Parish, where voters in 1996 shot down the idea of casino gambling, was roiling the political waters Wednesday after a public notice from The St. Tammany Farmer made the rounds on Facebook.

The notice, which ran in the weekly newspaper on Feb. 26, says that a bill may be filed in the upcoming legislative session to allow riverboat gaming in St. Tammany Parish, contingent on a referendum. One lawmaker confirmed that he's been approached by a lobbyist about sponsoring such a bill.

But Rep. Bob Owen, a Republican who was elected to the Slidell-area House District 76 seat in October, said he will do so only if he thinks that there is overwhelming public support.

It could not be immediately determined who placed the ad, but the appearance of the legal notice touched off a firestorm on social media after former state Rep. Reid Falconer, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate District 11 seat in the fall, posted a picture of it on his Facebook page.

When commenters asked who was behind the notice, Falconer replied, "Follow the money" and posted a link to the campaign finance report of Sen. Patrick McMath, the candidate who beat Falconer for the Senate seat, which covers central and western St. Tammany and part of Tangipahoa Parish.

Falconer could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday, but McMath said he is not sponsoring any gambling legislation.

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"I can assure you if one is filed, it's not going to be from me," McMath said, adding that he has prefiled 11 bills for the upcoming session and none have anything to do with casinos or gambling.

McMath said he has been told that the same group that tried to move the Diamond Jack Casino from Bossier Parish to Tangipahoa Parish is behind the effort and is trying to put the boat in eastern St. Tammany. Bills to put the matter to a referendum in Tangipahoa Parish failed in both the House and Senate two years ago.

Owen confirmed that the group wants to move from Bossier Parish and is looking at the Slidell area, although he said he does not know exactly where they want to put the boat. Owen said he has been approached by lobbyist Ty Bromell to sponsor a bill.

"I told them unless I had monumental support from community groups, the (Slidell) City Council, the mayor, the parish president, that's the only way I would support a referendum bill," Owen said.

He said he's spoken to only one group, the newly formed East St. Tammany Business Alliance, at a meeting Tuesday.

"We had two-thirds in favor, and one-third that weren't," Owen said, adding that he has yet to discuss the possibility with Slidell Mayor Greg Cromer, the Slidell City Council, Parish President Mike Cooper or the Parish Council.

Owen said he is on the fence about casino gambling, seeing it as a good revenue source but also something that brings problems with it. "There's no way I'll support it unless the support is overwhelming," he said.

Rep. Mary DuBuisson, R-Slidell, said that she also has been approached about a bill, and she included it in a survey she will be sending out in the next couple of days to gauge the response of her constituents.

DuBuisson said that while the area is very conservative, she thinks that the social climate may have changed in recent years. A post about the public notice on the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany Facebook page had some comments in favor of gambling, she said, adding that putting it on the ballot would allow people to vote on whether they want it or not.

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St. Tammany Parish voters rejected casinos and video poker in a local referendum in 1996, and in 2009 an effort by then-Parish President Kevin Davis to create an entertainment complex with a gambling boat in the Slidell area fizzled in the face of massive opposition, much of it from faith-based groups.

Recent rumors that a casino was part of efforts to put a resort in Fontainebleau State Park caused an uproar, with hundreds turning out at a public meeting in Mandeville where Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser spoke about the proposed resort hotel.

Owen said he thinks that those pushing to move the casino boat to St. Tammany think the large margin of parish voters who approved sports betting in a referendum last year indicates that voters might be willing to consider a floating casino.

Owen said that the public notice caught him by surprise. "They could have informed us about it," he said.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt said that legislators and local leaders were caught off guard. "I think it's a little late to be considering anything this session," she said, adding that a lot of groundwork would need to be done before St. Tammany officials are even in a position to consider the idea.

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