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tiggerpolice 06-16-2005 08:34 AM

Senate panel backs slots for New Orleans airport
Senate panel backs slots for New Orleans airport

Capitol news bureau

Advocate staff photo by Arthur D. Lauck
Sens. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, left, and Charles D. Jones, D-Monroe, confer Tuesday during debate over a bill to allow slot machines at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner to raise money for the New Orleans Saints football team. The panel sent the bill to the full Senate.
Over the governor's objections, a Senate panel Tuesday endorsed installing slot machines at the state's biggest airport to help pay state subsidies to the New Orleans Saints.
Meanwhile, a House panel gutted a Saints bailout bill the governor did want. The Ways and Means Committee removed a hotel tax increase for the Saints from House Bill 807 and added a sales tax exemption for the Zephyrs minor-league baseball team.

Rep. Bryant Hammett, D-Ferriday, chose not to push another bill to allow the Superdome commission to levy a rental car fee to aid the NFL team. He did not explain why.

Tuesday's activity over the state's unpopular obligations to Saints owner Tom Benson also prompted another round of Saints-bashing at the State Capitol.

But all the activity did little to clear up the issue because:

n Estimates vary wildly over how much the state might get from slot machines proposed for Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner.

n Blanco could veto the slot-machine bill, which she opposes because it's an expansion of gambling. Asked if she would veto it, Blanco said she hopes the bill doesn't get to her desk.

n The slot-machine money couldn't start flowing soon enough to help the state with an estimated $7 million shortfall on this year's payment.

Eight days before lawmakers must adjourn, Blanco's Chief of Staff Andy Kopplin said the administration is still working on non-gambling ways to pay the team all it is due under a 2002 deal made by former Gov. Mike Foster.

"There's little enthusiasm for the current deal -- and no enthusiasm to pay for it," Kopplin said.

The money for the 10-year commitment to Benson was supposed to come from current hotel taxes and other revenue from the New Orleans area. But hotel taxes have declined. Blanco borrowed from a job-creation fund to make up a shortfall in last year's payment.

Blanco insists the estimated $7 million shortfall this year must be filled from the greater New Orleans area, which gets the economic benefits of the NFL franchise.

It took two votes for the Senate Judiciary B Committee to advance House Bill 799, which would allow slot machines in the passenger-only areas of Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner.

"We're looking for the casual traveler who might want to put a little money in," said Rep. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, a supporter of the bill.

But he warned against expecting too much money from the slots. He said $8 million a year would be an optimistic estimate. Other projections have been as high as $28 million.

Gov. Blanco's executive counsel, Terry Ryder, spoke against the bill.

"The governor's position has been consistently in opposition to the expansion of gambling," Ryder said.

Martiny said the slot machines would be past security checkpoints, so only passengers with tickets could even play. He estimated 80 percent of the players would be generally well-heeled tourists, not locals or gambling addicts.

Committee Chairman Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, said he hates to see the state scrambling to pay the subsidies when the team should pay its own way.

"The Saints are a bunch of losers. They can't generate ticket sales," Marionneaux said.

Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, asked bill author and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, how the Legislature could turn down Metro Airport in Baton Rouge or other travel centers if they want gambling too.

"I'm trying to fill a specific obligation," not expand gambling, Richmond said.

The panel at first rejected the bill by a vote of three in favor to four against. After Ryder and others left, the panel reconsidered the vote and advanced the bill to the Senate on a 4-3 vote.

Sen. Ken Hollis, R-Metairie, changed his vote from yes to no. He said he voted no the first time to "get the attention" of the bill's author about the importance of the Saints.

The bill has passed the House and needs only Senate approval before going to the governor, who could let it become law or veto it.

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