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October 7, 2012

Alcohol, smoking and gaming issues may return to the Statehouse

INDIANAPOLIS — Alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling weren’t on the legislative agenda rolled out by Indiana House Republicans last week, but it’s likely they’ll be back at the Statehouse again next session anyway.

The three vices impact the state’s health and wealth in a variety of ways, which is why questions about how to regulate them keep returning. Gaming revenues are down, the clamor for Sunday alcohol sales hasn’t subsided, and smoke-free advocates want to gut the exemptions from the statewide smoking ban that went into place just three months ago.

Last Thursday, in anticipation of a GOP sweep of state legislative races in the November election, Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma announced his top priorities when the General Assembly convenes in January: Bills that boost jobs, improve education and deliver a no-gimmick budget.

When pressed by reporters, he conceded there will be other issues clamoring for attention as well. That includes the return of some contentious social issues, like more restrictions on abortion and the constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage and civil unions. But it also includes the return of the push for Sunday alcohol retail sales, an exemption-free smoking ban, and the expansion of gaming.

“There will be a thousand bills introduced,” said Bosma of the flurry of legislation expected to be filed by lawmakers for the 2013 session. “There will be a lot more issues than the three we are focusing on.”

Here’s why smoking, drinking and gaming will likely be in the mix:

The smoking ban: After six years of debate, Indiana lawmakers reluctantly passed a statewide smoking ban earlier this year. They did so late in the legislative session and only after the long list of workplace exemptions was expanded to include bars. Health advocates, including the American Cancer Society and the state’s largest hospital systems, said that wasn’t enough and they want the exemptions gutted. Democrat and Republican legislators who supported a clean smoke-free bill and argued it would save millions in healthcare costs, vowed to raise the issue again in 2013. But Bosma warned that a bill to revamp the ban might not make it past the crucial step of getting out of committee.

“I can’t imagine there will be a rush to reconfigure it,” Bosma said of the current law.

Sunday alcohol sales: Backers of the effort to legalize the sale of carry-out alcohol on Sunday are expected to argue once again that Hoosiers want to be able buy beer, wine and spirits seven days a week. They’ll likely argue that Indiana is the last state with a Sunday sales ban. That’s not quite right. Indiana may have the strictest prohibition (no sales of carry-out alcohol, but bars and restaurants can serve it by the drink), but there are a dozen states with some form of Sunday-sales restrictions.

The Sunday prohibition is rooted in the old “blue laws” that banned all sorts of business on Sundays. But there’s a different reason now for keeping it in place: Indiana’s package liquor stores, which are mostly locally owned, worry they won’t be able to compete with the national big-box store chains. So far, they’ve convinced legislative leaders to keep the Sunday sales issue at bay.

“These are economic issues, right?” Bosma said. “I don’t think anybody treats them as morality issues.”

Expanded gaming: Gambling is both an economic and morality issue in Indiana. When the state legalized casino gambling 20 years ago, it restricted the growth of gaming, but regulated and taxed it heavily. The problem: Other states have since shed their worries about the morality of gambling and are now competing with Indiana for the gaming dollars that provide a billion-dollar revenue stream that helps fund essential public services. There are now more than 1,000 casinos in 22 states, including neighboring Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.

In 2011, overall admissions to Indiana’s casinos fell to their lowest since 1997. In the first eight months of this year, Indiana’s 13 casinos saw revenue fall 3.5 percent — that’s while overall revenues of the nation’s casinos went up by 6 percent.

Bosma said legislative leaders know something needs to be done to protect what he called Indiana’s “investment” in gaming. But it’s unclear what that will be.

State Sen. Luke Kenley, the influential chairman of the Senate budget committee, concurs.

“I think Indiana has struck the right balance between allowing gaming to occur around the state and using it as a source of tax revenue,” Kenley said. “I don’t think we’ll see the expansion of gaming, but we also can’t ignore all the increased competition for gaming dollars.”

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