It's too late to argue about the existence of legalized gambling: Indiana let the camel's nose under the tent when the state lottery was approved 30 years ago. Last year, we were the sixth-highest state in the nation for gambling revenue, according to the UNLV Center for Gaming Research. Now a big measure passed by the legislature awaits Gov. Eric Holcomb's signature.
As the state added boats, racetracks, off-track betting facilities and land-based casinos, there have always been those who rejoice at the potential new jobs and sources of public revenue that don't require raising taxes. And there are those who argue gambling can be dangerously addictive, functions like a regressive tax on the poor and offers only short-term solutions to public funding.
Every time an expansion of gambling is proposed, another type of worry inevitably arises: concern for the integrity of the lawmaking process.
As The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly reported, the package passed during the waning days of the legislative session last month offers the most sweeping shift in gambling policy since riverboat casinos were authorized in 1993. It would allow Spectacle Entertainment, owner of two riverboat casinos in Gary, to move one of the facilities to a higher-traffic location within the city and put the other license up for bids to open a casino in Terre Haute if voters there approve. The omnibus bill also would allow gambling companies to take online bets on sporting events. The changes could be worth many millions of dollars to casino operators.
Within recent weeks, the Indianapolis Star revealed Holcomb took two flights last year on the private jet of Rod Ratcliff, a longtime gambling developer who was soon to become a partner in Spectacle Entertainment. The Star also reported that the law firm of House Speaker Brian Bosma was providing legal representation to the Vigo County Capital Improvement Board, an agency which would benefit from a casino located in Terre Haute. The firm was hired by Greg Gibson, Spectacle's other partner, the Star noted. Kelly first reported that Bosma recused himself from voting on the gambling bill, but the Star said the speaker had “multiple private meetings with casino companies – including at least one with Spectacle early in the session.”
Last week, the Star reported another legislator who had done work for Spectacle did not recuse himself and voted for the gaming legislation. Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, had been hired by the casino company to do title and closing services when it acquired the Gary casinos last year. Torr told the Star he had forfeited a $3,000 to $4,000 commission in order to be able to vote with a clear conscience. “The bipartisan House Committee on Ethics did not see a problem with Torr's vote because he had no 'direct personal or pecuniary interest' in the outcome,” the Star reported.
But as Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, told the Star, “simply not taking the commission does not absolve somebody of the appearance of wrongdoing.”
The need for lawmakers to keep their distance from the gaming industry is not a new concept. In 2001, then-Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton wrote these words on our pages: “Too often, an honest vote for legalized gambling will be misinterpreted.”
Yet once again, Indiana's $2.15 billion-a-year gaming industry has managed to stretch some officials to the ethical edge.