You know the old saying about how if you love something, set it free and if it comes back it’s meant to be? Sen. Jon Ford is applying that logic to online casino legislation in Indiana this year.
Ford planned to reintroduce his iGaming bill from last session, but he determined it has a quicker path to passage in the House.
Time is limited in Indiana this session. Bills must cross over to the other chamber by Jan. 31.
As a result, Reps. Doug Gutwein and Ethan Manning filed House Bill 1356 on Tuesday. But Ford hopes the online casino bill comes back to him in the Senate by the end of the month.
“We changed our strategy a little bit to start in the House and send it to the Senate,” Ford said. “I just think, with the short session, it has a better chance starting there. They’re the ones who can set the taxes. So we’re going to start there and see what happens.”
Details of Indiana online casino legislation
Manning will lead the effort in the Indiana House, but he’s actually down as co-author with Gutwein authoring the bill. This is because House lawmakers are limited to introducing five bills in even years, and Manning filled his allotment.
The bill is nearly identical to the one introduced by Ford last session. Key points include:
- Allows Indiana’s 14 casinos and racinos to offer internet casino games and online poker.
- Casinos and racinos pay $500,000 for an interactive gaming license, renewable annually for $50,000.
- Each casino can partner with up to three online brands, or skins.
- Those internet gaming operators pay $100,000 for an initial license, renewable annually for $25,000.
- Internet gaming revenue taxed at 18%, including 3% for local governments.
- 3.33% of state tax revenue collected goes to an Addiction Services Fund.
House committee chair could be obstacle
By going through the House, the online casino bill starts in the House Committee on Public Policy.
Rep. Ben Smaltz chairs the committee. When Indiana considered sports betting legislation in 2019, Smaltz removed the online aspect from the bill. Ford added it back in when the bill reached the Senate.
At that time, Smaltz told this author:
“I think having it available everywhere within the four walls of the state is a problem, and I think consumer protections are a problem. I don’t know why we wouldn’t have all casino games allowed to be played on a device if we are going to allow sports wagering on that device.”
That doesn’t seem to bode well for online casino getting out of his committee. Although, since mobile sports betting already is going on in Indiana, perhaps he wouldn’t see it as a big deal to add in casino games.
Ford said he plans to discuss with Smaltz ways the bill could address some of his concerns regarding consumer protections.
In Indiana, funds for problem gambling come from a general pool of money set aside for addiction services. In that structure, funding for alcohol and drug addictions often takes precedence.
Ford discussed the possibility of using the bill to create a specific unit of government with its own funding to oversee responsible gaming.
And perhaps Smaltz will be more open to online gambling after seeing the success of online sports betting in Indiana.
“I think he’ll give us a fair opportunity on this bill, especially if we can add some language to strengthen what we’re doing for problem gaming,” Ford said. “I’ll talk to him about that.”
Ford put in the work on educating colleagues
Last year, Ford’s online casino bill never got moving. It died without getting a committee hearing.
He said he underestimated the need for educating colleagues on the issue. During the break between sessions, he set out to correct that mistake.
Ford helped organize multiple educational webinars on iGaming for colleagues. The Casino Association of Indiana, UNLV and iDEA Growth all participated.
“Our association spent the last year educating Indiana lawmakers on the merits of iGaming regulation,” said John Pappas, state advocacy director for iDEA Growth. “Through a series of briefings and one-on-one meetings, we demonstrated how other states are protecting consumers and raising significant revenues. A recent briefing with the Casino Association of Indiana brought in more than a dozen experts who showed the iGaming experience in other states and how it has modernized the land-based industry to keep up with the shifting behaviors of new and existing customers.”
If Indiana fails to legalize online casino this year, it won’t be because lawmakers don’t understand the issue.
“Everyone is playing a role in this, and I think that’s when legislation has success is when you have a lot of stakeholders engaged,” Ford said.
Prospects for Indiana online casino passage
Indiana passed sports betting legislation in its second year, after a year of educating lawmakers on its merits.
Ford hopes online casino will follow a similar trend.
But early signs aren’t positive. The switch from the Senate to House raises concerns. The House committee chair wasn’t a fan of online gambling in the past.
“There will always be that obstacle of people seeing it as an expansion of gambling,” Ford said. “We’re a conservative state.”
A short session leaves little time for error. The House has less than three weeks to pass a bill. The Indiana legislative session ends March 14.
If the legislature does pass the iGaming bill, Ford believes Gov. Eric Holcomb would sign it.
“He generally leaves these matters up to the general assembly,” Ford said. “His office is very open to technology and innovation, so I can’t imagine he wouldn’t support this.”