Horseshoe: Is it a boat or a building?

Horseshoe Casino in Hammond is one of two casinos under scrutiny from state legislators. Their question: Is it a building or a boat?

In this year’s session of the General Assembly, lawmakers considered a measure that would have permitted casinos to pay a USD 25 million fee to go from a riverboat to a barge — allowing them to more cheaply build bigger facilities on platforms instead of boats.

It was never passed.

But state officials want to know if new building standards recently approved by the gaming commission bypassed legislative authority.

„We have a couple riverboats here in Indiana that are expanding significantly — approximately doubling in size,“ said state Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

„I believe that’s something that should be allowed by the Legislature and not by a regulatory agency.“

Pelath, who leads the Administrative Rules Oversight Commission, said the panel this fall will investigate whether the Indiana Gaming Commission has become too lenient with casinos.

Argosy Casino of Lawrenceburg and Horseshoe both used a consultant who also was helping the commission write its standards.

Valparaiso resident John Wolf, founder and former coordinator of the Indiana Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, said the relationship between the gaming commission and casino industry is a little too close for comfort.

„The gaming commission supposed to be representing the public. Instead, they get cozy with the casino operator,“ Wolf said. „I call it collusion of interest, because the public is not served by the regulator.“

Ernie Yelton, the gaming commission’s director, said the agency has simply followed existing law.

Representatives from both casinos have said that the vessels under construction will be „navigable,“ which is what Yelton says is necessary to meet state law.

Wolf said calling these casinos „riverboats“ is something of a misnomer.

„The original idea was that it would have to cruise after so many hours, every three hours, but it was never enforced,“ Wolf said. „These barges are really land-based casinos on water.“

Blue Chip Casino at Michigan City, which is in Pelath’s district, sought legislative approval for a barge so it could more easily expand to compete with an Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Mich.

But lawmakers declined, so the casino built a boat under the former construction standards that were set by the Coast Guard.

The General Assembly granted the gaming commission power to write new standards after the Coast Guard notified states that it likely would stop certifying boats in places where they remained docked at all times.

Yelton said the new standards were largely based on those used by the Coast Guard, with changes due to safety concerns because the boats no longer cruise. Below the water, Yelton said, the standards remain virtually unchanged.

Yelton said the companies were warned that they would be required to meet the new standards when they started construction before they were adopted. The casinos were building „at their own risk,“ he said. „They wouldn’t be grandfathered in.“