Pharos-Tribune

October 7, 2012

Alcohol, smoking and gambling issues may return to Statehouse

By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

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 affect the state’s health and wealth in a variety of ways, which is why questions about how to regulate them keep returning.

Gambling 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 gambling.

“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 gambling will likely be in the mix:

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.

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.”

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 gambling. 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 gambling 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 gambling, but we also can’t ignore all the increased competition for gaming dollars.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.