Ace in the Hole

by Jeremy Alford

Organized gambling doesn't have a friend in Gov. Kathleen Blanco, but it's still betting on expanding.

Rep. Ernest Wooten has his name attached to a set of bills that increase the number of video poker machines in truck-stop casinos and ups the maximum bet players can wager with one-armed bandits.

But if you ask the retired Republican sheriff from Plaquemines Parish about the possible impact of his legislation, he answers with one of his infamous John Wayne-meets-Yogi Berra one-liners.

"It's not an expansion of gambling, in my opinion," Wooten says. "It all depends on your perspective, and that's my perspective today."

Wooten was waiting for the House Criminal Justice Committee to convene. His gambling bills, along with a few others, were scheduled for a hearing. When the meeting did start, Terry Ryder, the governor's chief attorney, brought things to a screeching halt by opposing all of the gambling bills on behalf of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who has vowed to veto any such expansion.

"I'm no expert on gambling," Ryder says. "I'm just a messenger for the governor."

Chairman and Kenner Republican Rep. Danny Martiny emitted a sarcastic dry laugh and comment: "He's just a messenger."

Wooten and Martiny ended up yanking their gambling bills from the agenda, promising not to bring them back up at Blanco's request. But Democratic Rep. Warren Triche, who's sponsoring a bill legitimizing poker tournaments, held his ground.

In the aftermath, a slick-looking video poker lobbyist in alligator shoes and a zoot suit didn't hold back his opinion of Blanco. Alton E. Ashy of Baton Rouge-based Advanced Strategies calls Blanco "hypocritical" for using the industry's money in her budget and referred to her as nothing more than a speed bump.

"We will come back at a different time, under a different governor and different leadership, and this industry will get its due like every other," he says.

Expanding gambling in Louisiana has less to do with Blanco and more to do with previous governors. Buddy Roemer ushered in the lottery, video poker and riverboat casinos; Mike Foster is credited with accelerating gambling and opening the door for Indian casinos. Critics say Roemer and Foster created an environment of political acceptance for gambling that could have a major part in platforms and war chests of upcoming gubernatorial elections.

"They have a lot at stake," says C.B. Forgotston, who lobbied against Harrah's New Orleans casino alongside such famous names as the Brennan restaurant family. He also lobbied against the Louisiana lottery for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. "It's a statement of fact to say they are going to try and elect whoever they want," Forgotston says.

Count him among the cynics who believe the Legislature hasn't heard the last of the gaming industry this session.

"One thing I've seen them do in past sessions is act like they have been beaten and, at the last minute, attach the substance of a half-dozen video poker bills onto a conference committee report," Forgotston says. "It's a very slick tactic."

The gaming industry is already playing tough this session. They have managed to wiggle out of a bill that would ban smoking in most places in the state, watered down another measure that would have intercepted winnings from parents behind on child support and managed to get Orleans Parish exempted from a bill that would have legitimized Texas Hold 'Em poker so Harrah's Casino wouldn't face competition.

On the horizon, slot machines masquerading as bingo are making their way into communities where video poker is illegal ' thanks to a legislative loophole ' and a powerful economic argument is beginning to stick in some areas.

Hurricane Rita disrupted five casinos in Lake Charles and locals are beginning to grumble for economic support to help create more jobs, as the state did a few years ago for Harrah's Casino in New Orleans. A similar debate is underway in Grant Parish, where many view an Indian casino as a saving grace to money problems.

Ashy and others in the gaming industry seem to recognize these arguments are a way to shake off the negative stigma of gambling in Louisiana. They're already using teacher pay as a starting point.

"I think it's somewhat hypocritical for the governor to state that we're going to pad her political nest by getting teachers on board, but we're using dirty gambling money to do it," Ashy told the committee. "At some point in time we're going to have to realize that this is a business. It is a legal business."