Parish Council, then voters would decide
Nathan Wilson | Reporter
After more than two decades, Natchitoches voters may again have the option to vote on whether to allow hospitality venues in the parish to operate video draw poker machines.
Introduced by State Senator Jay Luneau, SB 449 authorizes the Natchitoches Parish Government to organize a referendum on whether to allow video draw poker devices within the parish. The bill is currently awaiting the governor’s signature after passing in both the state house and senate.
Luneau was joined by Sen. Louie Bernard in voting for the bill, but state representatives Gabe Firment, Rodney Schamerhorn and Jack McFarland all voted against the measure. Each of the three representatives will have constituents in Natchitoches Parish after reapportionment.
Rep. Kenny Cox, whose legislative district will be reapportioned to another area of the state following his term, was absent during the vote. He introduced similar legislation as HB 319 last year, but the measure never advanced to a vote.
Bernard explained why he voted for the bill. “This is an opportunity for the people to come out and express their own viewpoint and how they feel. When it came to the senate, that’s why I voted for it,” he says. He didn’t create the bill, but provided insight. “What it allows is the parish council, the governing authority, would have the authority to call an election at a point in time that they deem appropriate, and let the people of the parish decide if they want video poker or not.”
Bernard expresses ambivalence toward gambling legislation and the debate surrounding it. “Those are issues that are very controversial. There are people who just don’t believe in gambling in any size, shape or form,” he remarks. He recalls the arguments made when Louisiana first introduced casino gambling. “Most of them said, if they’re going to do it anyway at least keep the money in Louisiana.”
“(Local governments) have always looked for ways to think outside the box and looked for ways that they can come up with funding for the things people are asking for,” Bernard said. “There’s certainly a need. We all know about roads and bridges, and we all know about other needs we have in the parish, and there seems to be a lot more need than there is money for it.”
Bernard didn’t have any projections of the tax revenue video draw poker could create. Instead he suggested the parish government study the issue before holding a vote. “I assume that if the local parish council was in a position of wanting to do this, they had looked at other states, other parishes, to see what kind of income might be generated from it,” said Bernard. “I don’t know how much they could reasonably expect to get for local schools, roads and bridges, the things that local governments are responsible for.”
The bill doesn’t specify a timeline for the vote to take place, and Bernard recommended Natchitoches residents engage in public discourse before the referendum. “They can certainly get their votes together and get people together and advertise and do whatever they need to do to be for it or against it,” he said. “It’s not declared in there that they have to call it this summer or this fall. They can call it when they deem it to be appropriate.”
Bernard reiterates his vote wasn’t to introduce video draw poker, but to give his constituents the opportunity to decide the issue. “As long as you’re not voting to do it, you’re voting to let the people have a voice and decide the issue, I’ve normally gone along with that.”
Representative Jack McFarland didn’t go along with SB 449. His current district represents four parishes to the east but will extend into Natchitoches after redistricting. “Natchitoches is not in my district yet. It will be in a couple years, part of Natchitoches Parish will be,” he says.
McFarland explains why he voted no. “The voters voted gambling out,” he said, referring to a referendum in the mid-90s that ended video poker in many parishes half a decade after it debuted in Louisiana. “You have a local government coming back, as I read the bill, asking for it to be put back on the ballot, so are we questioning what we did 20 years ago?” he asked.
“If you’ll look at my voting record, I don’t vote for gambling bills,” McFarland says. “The reason is because I come from local government.” He draws from his experience. “As parish president of Winn Parish for eight years, we didn’t have it then, and if you talk to a lot of these parishes that do have it, you don’t see a whole lot of benefit from it.” As Parish President, he learned how much revenue Winn Parish received from video poker during the years it occurred. “It was about $95,000 a year. That’s it. It wasn’t a whole lot of money,” he says.
“My other problem with it is, if it is placed on the ballot, what does the local government plan to do with any revenue generated?” McFarland asks. “Nowhere in this piece of legislation does it tell me what they plan on using that revenue for,” he says. “What I get from a lot of my constituents is, hey, we elected you to go down there to protect us, protect our interests (and) ask questions.”
McFarland recalls prior occasions when he voted in favor of gambling bills. “I have made two exceptions in votes, but it was because local government, whatever their plan was, it was something I felt would benefit all the community and I could do that,” he says. He isn’t sure who wants video draw poker to return to Natchitoches. “Not one single person (or) elected official from Natchitoches Parish called me and asked me to support this or oppose it,” he says. “The only thing I hear about is the infrastructure. All I hear about is roads. That’s all I hear from the folks in Natchitoches Parish.” He believes more work is needed to form a plan for implementing video poker. “There’s got to be some type of communication, but I think the public has a right to know, if we do place this proposition on the ballot, what are we going to do with this (revenue)?”
McFarland reveals he has deeper concerns. “If you look at the communities that have expanded gambling, they’ve also seen an increase in crime and poverty and a lot of family and social issues. It’s a proven fact,” he says. “You can ask any law enforcement, any DA, they see an uptick in crime, divorce, and other social issues when you expand gambling opportunities.” He insists he’s not telling others not to gamble. “You have a right to make your own mind up, to make your own decisions. I don’t have to agree with it. That’s not my job.” he says. “Overall, my job is to do my best to protect the community as a whole until data or statistics show me otherwise that gambling somehow truly benefits a community.”
Sen. Luneau did not respond to requests for comment by press time. Rep. Firment echoed similar concerns as McFarland about the social impacts of gambling on crime, poverty and community integrity and citing the “moral cost” of gambling.
Natchitoches Parish President John Richmond provided his thoughts and insight into the referendum SB 449 authorizes. “I am absolutely for people having the right to decide.”
“As a resident of the parish my view is I think the people ought to be allowed to vote on it,” Richmond says. “Those things that affect our lives, affect the tax revenue of the parish, those ought to be a choice of the people.”
Richmond also offered his view as a public official. “I think whenever we try to legislate those things, the people in Baton Rouge sometimes get it right, sometimes get it wrong. The closer you get to the people who are actually going to have to deal with it every day, the closer to a right answer you’re going to get. “
Whether video draw poker is the right answer remains to be determined, but before the issued is settled, a referendum will need to be called with the parish government bearing the expense. Documentation prepared by the Legislative Fiscal Office estimated the cost of a referendum at $16,000 if implemented during the December congressional election, but could be as high as $64,000, if voted on as a standalone item.
Parish Council, then voters would decide