Thoughts and ideas from The Current's contributors and community on the big questions behind the headlines.

BIG QUESTION: Should Lafayette legalize gambling to bolster parish finances?

Darya Sannikova

Despite tens of millions in federal relief, Lafayette Parish government still can’t afford to pay for all of its responsibilities. That’s because the taxes dedicated to public infrastructure like drainage, roads and the jail aren’t sufficient to cover the costs to operate and maintain them. Parish government desperately needs more revenue, but parish voters have in recent years consistently voted down new tax measures. 

Into this quagmire stepped Parish Councilman Kevin Naquin with an idea: legalize gambling to raise revenue without forcing everyone to pay new taxes. Doing this could generate millions in new annual revenue for parish government, but that revenue would come at a potentially significant socioeconomic cost.

So is this a good idea?

On the one hand, legalizing gambling would generate new tax revenue. 

Legalizing video poker would likely bring in between $1 million and $3 million in local tax revenue annually, based on comps in other Acadiana parishes where gaming is legal. The highest in the state is Jefferson Parish, which pulls in north of $4 million.

Legalizing a riverboat casino could bring in up to $12 million per year depending on whether it’s an actual riverboat or a giant building pretending to be a boat, like the “riverboat” casinos in Lake Charles.

While this might not be enough revenue to address all of parish government’s needs, it is enough to make a significant dent. And all without raising anyone’s property or sales taxes. 

There are also different ways in which this new revenue could be divvied up. For example, in Lake Charles, gaming revenue is split between a variety of parish and city governing authorities, whereas in Shreveport gaming revenue is used to fund dozens of nonprofits. 

But all this free money isn’t without drawbacks.

For starters, the companies that own the video poker devices or riverboat casino likely wouldn’t be headquartered in Lafayette. That means when the house ultimately wins, those profits would leave our local economy.

Some argue that gambling is just a tax on the poor that’s based on selling false hope. A large portion of those profits would be coming from the pockets of people who can’t afford to lose that money. Gambling addiction can destroy lives, so making it more accessible to people who live in the parish could increase the rate of that destructive behavior, as demonstrated in this study suggesting the presence of a casino within 10 miles can double the rate of problem gambling.

My initial reaction to this big question surfaced my libertarian sensibilities. Making gambling illegal likely isn’t stopping anyone who wants to gamble from gambling, especially with the rise of legal online sportsbooks. Instead, it’s just preventing our parish from being able to benefit from the jobs associated with gambling and the tax revenue. So why not remove government restrictions and legalize it?

But as I thought further, I realized that it doesn’t take a lot of employees to maintain video poker machines in dark corners of truck stops, so legalizing it wouldn’t create many jobs. In fact, the jobs created by video poker are so negligible that this comprehensive gaming industry analysis didn’t even include video poker in its projected impact of gaming on job creation alongside riverboat, land-based and racetrack slots. 

And if generating new tax revenue for the parish means taking money out of the parish’s economy, at some point I do start to wonder if the juice is worth the squeeze. For example, in St. Martin Parish, which has the biggest video poker business in Acadiana, video poker generates $48.4 million in net device revenue — in other words the sweep between how much the machines collect vs. pay out in prizes — but only delivers $3.4 million in new revenue for local government. 

So this suggests that for every dollar in new revenue generated by video poker for local government, as much as $14 could be leaving the local economy either as profits for non-local owners/operators or as taxes to state government that may or may not make their way back to Lafayette. If you want to dig deeper into these numbers, check out this annual report from the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.

I’ll admit I am biased in favor of the idea of a riverboat casino, though, simply because I think it’d be fun to have one in town and it has the potential to become an attraction that could bring people into Lafayette. But I have no idea if it’s even possible to have one anywhere on the Vermilion River. And while a riverboat would create jobs, it could also exact a similar socioeconomic toll as video poker.

The overall potential ROI of legalizing gambling needs more scrutiny. But regardless of where I end up falling on this issue, I believe the Parish Council should consider putting something up for a vote so that the public can ultimately decide. 

But what do you think? Should Lafayette Parish legalize gambling to shore up its finances, or is the promise of new revenue not worth the potential socioeconomic cost?

💪 What can you do?

Wherever you land on this issue, if you feel strongly about it, tell the Parish Council.

While there is no specific next step that’s been identified or timeline to move forward with, I’m sure they’d all love to hear more from their constituents about what our priorities should be as a parish.