INDIANAPOLIS — The debate over a Senate-approved, once-in-a-generation change to Indiana's gaming industry, including relocating Gary's Majestic Star casinos and legalizing sports wagering, shifted Wednesday to the House Public Policy Committee.
The Republican-led panel did not consider amendments or vote on Senate Bill 552. But it heard some five hours of testimony from Hoosiers favoring and opposing the myriad provisions in the legislation.
Leaders of Northwest Indiana communities and casino operators largely picked sides based on whether they believe the Region gaming market has peaked and any changes simply rearrange pieces of the pie, or whether they still see room to grow the pie.
Gary officials fell into the latter camp. They wholeheartedly endorsed the proposed move of one Majestic Star casino from Lake Michigan to a land-based site adjacent to the Borman Expressway, and to send the city's second gaming license to Terre Haute.
The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimates the inland move in Gary will generate at least $8.5 million a year in new tax revenue for the state, and a minimum of $2.6 million for the city, without even accounting for the potential of luring more Illinois gamblers to a brand new casino just across the state line.
But Gary leaders insisted that a bigger gaming pie is just the start of what could develop once the Majestic Star's two gaming boats, which operate as a single casino but technically are separate entities, are removed from Buffington Harbor.
They plan to turn the lakeside land, already crisscrossed with multiple rail lines, into an intermodal shipping and warehousing center that combined with nearby highway and airport access will offer businesses an alternative to transferring their goods in Chicago.
"This is not just about the casino aspect," said state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary. "We truly see this as an opportunity to move to the next level."
Meanwhile, East Chicago and Hammond leaders told the panel they fear the Gary casino move will hurt workers in their communities employed at the Ameristar and Horseshoe casinos, which may lose business due to their unchanging locations on Lake Michigan.
"I'll simply say: Let's not do irreparable harm to the Everyday Joe," said East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland. "Let's let the rules of engagement stay the way it is."
Phil Taillon, chief of staff to Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., warned lawmakers that allowing the Gary casino move will destabilize the Region gaming market, and possibly discourage future investment in Indiana by national casino operators.
"We do not believe that relocating one of the Gary licenses to the 80-94 expressway increases the pie," Taillon said. "It just changes the size of the pieces between each casino property and each local community."
Under the measure, the casino cities of Hammond, East Chicago and Michigan City, along with LaPorte County, would suffer no loss of gaming tax revenue due to a "hold-harmless" requirement that Gary share any excess gaming tax collections for three years following the inland casino move.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said a fair hold-harmless is acceptable to her because the city is "not attempting to improve Gary's fortunes on the backs of our neighbors."
The committee next week is likely to consider revising the measure before voting on whether to advance it to the House Ways and Means Committee for further scrutiny of its financial impact.