This may be the year for pull tab bill to pass

I’ve never been able to explain why the one new idea the state jumped on in the last decade was casino gambling. With 10 riverboat casinos and an 11th license on the way in French Lick, Indiana is fast becoming one of the most lucrative gaming states in the country, behind Nevada and New Jersey. But before the lottery began selling scratch-off tickets in 1989, the state had nothing more exciting than bingo.  The Off Track Betting Parlor for Hoosier Park, less than a block away from the Statehouse. Indiana law could change to let the horse racing industry fill that OTB parlor with 1,500 electronic pull tab machines.Walking from lunch in downtown Indianapolis to the capital building, I pass the Off Track Betting (OTB) Parlor for Hoosier Park, less than a full block away from the Statehouse. This may be the year the law could change and let the horse racing industry fill that OTB parlor with 1,500 electronic pull tab machines. Pull tab machines are kind of like slot machines, except the gambling lobbyists say that they ... well they ... Oh, they’re slot machines.

The bill by Rep. Scot Reske, D-Pendleton, would allow 5,000 of the slot machines between the two racetracks — Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs — and two OTBs operated jointly by the racetracks in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. Reske’s bill passed committee and is on its way to House Ways and Means, chaired by Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis.

Crawford supports pull tabs. The revenue would bring much needed tax revenue to the city of Indianapolis. There are programs for minority and women business development tied to pull tabs, similar to the programs required in 1993 when the casinos were first introduced. For the state, pull tabs would bring in as much as $152 million a year in tax revenue.

Ironically, that is almost exactly what Gov. Joseph Kernan estimates it would cost to make full-day kindergarten a reality across the state. Crawford thought Indianapolis should have had a casino when the riverboat legislation passed in 1993. “I supported bringing a riverboat to Indianapolis, back when the riverboat legislation passed. I would have put one on the White River. But at the time, there was no support from City Hall. The bishop of the United Methodist Church was strongly against it and that carried a lot of weight in Central Indiana,” Crawford said.

This time, Mayor Bart Peterson supports the slots at the tracks. The horse racing industry, which has suffered from declining purses in the last year, believes the money from pull tabs will create a whole horse breeding industry in Indiana.

As for the negative consequences, they have been few and far between. Enough time has passed to judge the impact and casinos have not devastated the surrounding communities, Crawford said. “I haven’t seen those communities going downhill,” Crawford said.

A crossroads on gamblingJohn Wolf, the coordinator for the Indiana Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, said the impact is out there, though it has not been tallied. The retired Methodist minister from Valparaiso points out that Indiana leads the nation in bankruptcies. The bankrupt individuals are not only people who worked in factories, they are people who gambled in casinos, Wolf says.

The evidence is only anecdotal but in just the last year, there have been headline-grabbing cases of people who seem to have snapped after losing big at the casinos. There was a 51-year-old bank robber, a Merrillville man named Jeffrey Frevert, who had no prior criminal record until he went on a crime spree, robbing three banks in quick succession to cover his gambling debts, according to prosecutors.

In an even weirder case, a Hobart woman, Barbara Garcia, appears to have killed her husband of 43 years, Cipriano Garcia, 71, to cover up $4,000 in gambling debts. Prosecutors say she injected him repeatedly with his insulin. Her adult daughter Tammy is charged with helping her mother dump her stepfather’s body in Illinois to cover the crime.

Those aren’t the only cases, but Indiana has not collected comprehensive data on the effects of casino gambling. Gambling opponent Wolf would like the state to fund such a study, but there is no bill and no obvious Statehouse backing to do that. The state is at a bit of a crossroads on gaming. Gov. Frank O’Bannon had said he was against further expansion of gaming but he allowed dockside gaming and another casino, this time for French Lick. Gov. Joseph Kernan has never made a public statement on where he stands on casinos.

“The governor believes there is enough gambling in Indiana. We are watching the progress of House Bill 1188,” said Tina Noel, the governor’s press secretary.

Don’t get me wrong. You’re talking to a Northwest Indiana boy. I live within 40 minutes of five casinos. Every once in a while, you’ll find me there. If a referendum were held in Lake County to keep the casinos, it would pass in a heartbeat. Real votes, too — none of that monkey business you hear so much about in the regular elections. So this may be the year for pull tabs. When the bill came up in committee, the only people to speak against the bill were from the food and beverage industry. Their objection? They were upset the bill didn’t include video poker machines in bars across Indiana.

Steve Walsh is a Statehouse Reporter for the Gary Post-Tribune.


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