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New casino revenue laws won’t hurt, but …

Harrison County officials are scrambling to get the official scoop on the recently enacted, complex legislation which changes the percentage and distribution of riverboat tax funds.
But of one thing most are certain:
Harrison County should do quite well as long as income from the riverboat continues at $23.2 million per year, which is the amount received during the fiscal year ending June 30. That’s the apparent cap on future income set by the Indiana General Assembly during its recent special session.
“I don’t think it will be a problem,” said Harrison County Council Chair Gary Davis Monday night. “If we wind up in the $20 million range, we ought to be able to fund all the essential projects.”
The council has asked its consultant, Frank Cummings, and its attorney, Michael Summers, to review the legislation and report the changes.
Apparently, some feel the change in the law isn’t as bad as it could have been, because Harrison County will still receive a pot of gold from the riverboat, but, apparently, it won’t be allowed to grow.
Terry L. Miller, who chairs the Harrison County Board of Commissioners, said it would be difficult to complain if Harrison County receives “only $24 million,” but he is still “torqued” about some aspects of the changes.
Among those, the state will distribute the first $33 million collected in gaming taxes to jurisdictions throughout the state which don’t have a riverboat. The amount of each payment will be based on population, and spending is restricted to police or firefighters’ pensions, municipal sewer and drinking water projects, or property tax reduction.
Jurisdictions such as Harrison County, which, of course, has income from the Caesars Indiana riverboat, won’t receive a portion of that distribution. “Harrison County is left off,” Miller said. “Why?”
“That’s our shortage,” said Councilman Carl Duley.
At the same time, Harrison County is sharing 15 percent of its riverboat revenue with adjacent counties and towns, as part of the original agreement for Harrison County to receive a license. That distribution will likely change when the license is up for renewal in another year, Miller and other leaders agreed.
“I think it changes priorities,” said Commissioner James Goldman.
Another thorn in the side, Miller said, is the fact that Harrison County’s license was initially withheld while the state waited to see if voters either in Floyd or Clark counties approved referendums for a gaming license, either of which would have been a preferred location because they’re closer to the Louisville market. That delay, and many others along the way, resulted in a cap that doesn’t reflect Caesars’ full earning potential.
The new law allows no adjustment for that inequity.
“Harrison County is taking it on the chin, to put it bluntly,” said Goldman.
Also, no one has clarified when Harrison County can expect to receive its money, said Commissioner J.R. Eckart. Formerly, distributions of gaming tax revenue were made monthly, and Harrison County’s share of the admissions tax ($2 for each patron that entered the boat) was received quarterly.
“I still think the amount of money Harrison County will receive is a great amount, which the county can work with, if we can depend on that for a long period of time so we can plan long-range,” Eckart said.
According to Terry Mumford, the governor’s legislative director, said it’s her understanding the law guarantees that Harrison County will receive at least as much as it has in the past and provides insurance in the event Caesars’ revenue drops. In that case, the state would make up the difference, Mumford said.
More information will be provided on the details as quickly as possible, she added.
Eckart said he is also disappointed that Harrison County wasn’t allowed to achieve the full benefit of its five-year contract.
“They’ve capped us when we haven’t achieved the benefit of the total operation. The hotel has only been in operation eight months, and the golf course isn’t open yet,” Eckart said, adding those amenities are expected to increase Caesars’ gaming income from “high rollers.”
Eckart also said he doesn’t understand why Harrison County and other riverboat jurisdictions should be expected to share their resources with others throughout the state when, for instance, Marion County isn’t forced to share its income from industry or its international airport.
Part of the problem, said Davis, is that the legislation was hammered out in conference, without the usual time for close scrutiny and open debate.
State Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, said, “I’ve never seen perfect legislation written, and that’s why we have sessions every year.
“If there are any imperfections in this one (which, he said, is as thick as a telephone book and was passed in one day) which in any way will harm Harrison County, I would certainly introduce legislation and fight to correct that.”
State Rep. Paul Robertson, D-Depauw, could not be reached this week, but Young said he is sure Robertson would concur as would Rep. Dennis Oxley, D-English.
Young said it was his understanding that Harrison County would not receive less than it had been receiving.
He, too, believes the terms of the contract allowing the five-year license should have been honored.
“There has always been speculation that, at some point, other counties would try to grab the money,” Young said. “The original agreement with the people of Harrison County that, if they wanted a riverboat, the funding was set up to come back to those counties that passed the referendum and met the criteria.
“I think that’s what they should be entitled to; we have standing because this was the original way the legislation was written,” he said. “We have a right to expect that should be honored.”