INDIANAPOLIS — Two proposals that could reshape the state's gaming landscape and transform Gary's Buffington Harbor into a water, rail, highway and air shipping and warehousing hub won unanimous approval Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
But Senate Bill 552 and Senate Bill 66 also were revised by the panel to add and delete controversial provisions — including removing a guarantee that Hammond's gaming tax revenue will not shrink following the opening of a land-based Gary casino.
As it now stands, Senate Bill 552 legalizes sports wagering and authorizes the two Majestic Star casinos to relocate to a single Gary site, likely adjacent to the Borman Expressway, and permits the second casino license to be moved to Vigo County, likely in the city of Terre Haute.
Gone from the measure is a provision that would have required Gary to share with Hammond, and, possibly, East Chicago, a portion of Gary's gaming revenue from a land-based casino, some of which is likely to come at the expense of the Horseshoe and Ameristar casinos.
Instead of an explicit "hold-harmless" provision for the anticipated gaming tax revenue hit to the other cities, the revised proposal merely authorizes Gary to provide additional funding, at its discretion, to Hammond, East Chicago and Michigan City, home of Blue Chip casino.
That did not sit well with East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland, who said there needs to be a definite hold-harmless clause in the measure before it becomes law.
"I wish Gary well. I mean, it's my sister city. But, at the same time, I'm here representing the city of East Chicago, and we truly would like to be held harmless," Copeland said.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she's not sure tax revenue in the other Region casino cities, especially Hammond, will be negatively affected by a land-based Gary casino.
But she's willing to work with local leaders to figure out a fair formula if a hold-harmless clause is necessary.
"We have never undertaken this initiative to do it on the backs of any community. We are simply being pro-Gary, and being pro-Gary does not mean that we're being anti- anywhere else, and we certainly look forward to having those conversations," she said.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who did not attend Thursday's committee hearing, said removing the hold-harmless language showed "bad faith" in earlier compromises on the legislation.
"When I testified and Mayor Copeland testified about this bill in Senate committee, they specifically told us there would be hold-harmless language in the bill to keep the Hammond and East Chicago governments whole," McDermott said.
"I toned down my opposition to the bill because of that assurance. Now it looks like they just did it to shut me and Mayor Copeland up. This was bad faith and anti-Region."
Freeman-Wilson said the bad faith at a previous committee meeting was Michael Elkmann, president of the Hammond Fraternal Order of Police, telling state senators that Gary is riddled with corruption and crime, and should not receive any support to improve the city.
"Mayor McDermott owes the citizens of Gary an apology," Freeman-Wilson said.
The sponsor of the gaming legislation, state Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, said he was told by state Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, the Appropriations Committee chairman, that the hold-harmless provision needed to be removed to win committee approval.
Messmer expects to try to re-insert it next week when the measure is eligible for amendment by the full Senate, or once it advances to the Indiana House.
Hammond's mayor said he's optimistic the language will be restored by the House.
"I do have faith that will happen," McDermott said. "The Indiana House is a lot more sympathetic to Hammond and East Chicago — and Michigan City, to be honest."
Senate Bill 66, co-sponsored by state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, addresses what happens to Buffington Harbor once the Majestic Star casinos are moved elsewhere, and the lakefront land is cleared for redevelopment by a new "Gary Indiana Transmodal Compact."
The committee changed the compact board to more evenly balance its membership between individuals connected to the city of Gary, and officials appointed by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.
The board now would have nine voting members, including four from the city and five from the state, along with two nonvoting members representing the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and the World Trade Center Indianapolis.
The committee also clarified that the compact development zone runs north and south between Lake Michigan and Airport Road, and east to west between Cline Avenue and U.S. Steel.
In addition, the amended proposal explicitly states that all city property will remain city property.
"We believe that this is, in fact, reflective of a partnership," Freeman-Wilson said.
"We also believe that it sends a message to our constituents, which are the citizens of our community, that this represents an opportunity to grow and build through a partnership, and it is clearly not an effort to take over assets in the city of Gary — but to develop those assets."
The revised measure also requires the compact to make a sincere effort to hire Gary residents where possible on development projects, and for Ivy Tech Community College in Lake County to offer training programs relating to intermodal, building trades and gaming jobs.
"I believe that we've reached a position where we are poised to go to the next level from an economic development standpoint," said Melton, who recommended the skills training and hiring provisions be added to the legislation.
All in all, Gary leaders said the unanimous committee votes on both proposals send a strong signal that the Republican-controlled General Assembly intends to "make Gary great again," in the words of former state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, who was on hand with city officials for the committee hearing.