parish council, then the voters would decide
Nathan Wilson | Journalist
After more than two decades, voters in Natchitoches may once again have the opportunity to vote on whether or not 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 hold a referendum on whether to allow draw video poker machines within the parish. The bill is currently awaiting the governor’s signature after passing both the state house and the senate.
Luneau was joined by Sen. Louie Bernard in voting for the bill, but state Reps. Gabe Firment, Rodney Schamerhorn and Jack McFarland all voted against the measure. Each of the three representatives will have voters in the parish of Natchitoches after the redistribution.
Representative Kenny Cox, whose legislative district will be redistributed to another region of the state after his term, was absent during the vote. He introduced legislation similar to HB 319 last year, but the measure was never passed.
Bernard explained why he voted for the bill. “It’s an opportunity for people to come out and express their own views and what they feel. As far as the senate is concerned, that’s why I voted for it,” he says. did not create the bill, but provided an overview.” What this allows for is that the parish council, the governing authority, would have the power to call an election at a time it deems appropriate and let the people of the parish decide whether or not they want video poker.”
Bernard expresses ambivalence towards gambling legislation and the debate surrounding it. “These are issues that are very controversial. There are people who just don’t believe in gambling, no matter what size, shape or form,” he remarks. He recalls the arguments made when Louisiana first introduced casino games. “Most of them said if they had 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 to find funding for what people are asking for,” Bernard said. “There is definitely a need. We all know the roads and the bridges, and we know all the other needs we have in the parish, and there seems to be a lot more needs than money for that.
Bernard had no projection of the tax revenue that video poker might create. Instead, he suggested the parish government consider the matter before holding a vote. “I guess if the local parish council was in a position to want to do that, they looked at other states, other parishes, to see what kind of revenue could be generated from that,” Bernard said. “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 does not specify a timeline for the vote, and Bernard recommended Natchitoches residents engage in a public discourse ahead of the referendum. “They can certainly get their votes together and bring people together and advertise and do whatever they need to do to be for or against,” he said. “It doesn’t state in there that they have to call it this summer or this fall. They can call him whenever they see fit.
Bernard reiterates that his vote was not to introduce video poker, but to give his constituents the opportunity to decide the issue. “As long as you don’t vote to do it, you vote to let people speak and decide the matter, I normally accepted that.”
Representative Jack McFarland did not accept SB 449. His current district represents four parishes to the east but will expand to Natchitoches after the redistricting. “Nachitoches isn’t in my district yet. It will be in a few years, part of the parish of Natchitoches will be,” he says.
McFarland explains why he voted no. “Voters voted against the game,” he said, referring to a referendum in the mid-1990s that ended video poker in many parishes half a decade after it started in Louisiana. “You have local government coming back, as I read the bill, asking that it be put back on the ballot, so are we questioning what we did 20 years ago?” He asked.
“If you look at my voting record, I don’t vote for gambling bills,” McFarland says. “The reason is that I come from the local government.” He draws on his experience. “As president of the Winn Parish Parish for eight years, we didn’t have it then, and if you talk to a lot of those parishes that have it, you don’t see much benefit from it.” As parish president, he learned how much revenue Winn Parish received from video poker in the years he performed. “It was about $95,000 a year. That’s it. It wasn’t a lot of money,” he says.
“My other issue with this is if it’s on the ballot, what does the local government plan to do with the revenue generated?” asks McFarland. “Nowhere in this bill does it tell me what they plan to use this revenue for,” he says. “What I get from a lot of my constituents is, hey, we elected you to protect us, protect our interests (and) ask questions.”
McFarland recalls previous occasions when he voted in favor of gambling bills. “I made two exceptions in the votes, but that was because the local government, whatever their plan was, it was something that I thought would benefit the whole community and I could do that,” he said. He doesn’t know who wants video poker back in Natchitoches. “Not a single person (or) elected official from Natchitoches Parish has called me and asked me to support this or oppose it,” he says. “The only thing I hear about is infrastructure. All I hear about are the roads. That’s all I hear from people in the parish of Natchitoches. He thinks there is still work to be done to come up with a video poker implementation plan. “There has to be some type of communication, but I think the public has a right to know, if we put this proposal on the ballot, what are we going to do with that (revenue)?”
McFarland reveals he has deeper concerns. “If you look at the communities that developed the game, they also saw an increase in crime and poverty and many family and social problems. It’s a proven fact,” he said. “You can ask any law enforcement agency, any prosecutor, that they see an increase in crime, divorce and other social problems when you expand gambling opportunities. ” He insists that he doesn’t tell others not to play. “You have the right to form your own opinion, to make your own decisions. I don’t have to agree with that. It’s not my job. he says. “Overall, my job is to do my best to protect the community as a whole until the data or statistics show me otherwise, that the game is truly benefiting in some way. to a community.”
Senator Luneau did not respond to requests for comment before press time. Representative Firment echoed concerns similar to McFarland’s regarding the social impacts of gambling on crime, poverty and community integrity and citing the “moral cost” of gambling.
Natchitoches Parish President John Richmond shared his thoughts and views on the referendum authorized by SB 449. “I’m absolutely for people having the right to decide.”
“As a parish resident, I think people should be allowed to vote,” Richmond says. “These things that affect our lives, affect the tax revenue of the parish, these should be a choice of the people.”
Richmond also offered his perspective as a public servant. “I think whenever we try to legislate these things, the people of 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 better response you’ll get. “
Whether draw video poker is the right answer remains to be determined, but before the matter is settled, a referendum will need to be held with the parish government bearing the expense. Documentation prepared by the Legislative Tax Office estimated the cost of a referendum at $16,000 if implemented in the December congressional elections, but could be as high as $64,000 if passed as a autonomous element.