State legislators continue to try and get more funds from county riverboat funds

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Switzerland County Council president Mike Jones said that it feels a little bit like Poland felt during World War II — Russia on one side and Germany on the other.

That’s where Switzerland County falls currently in the Indiana legislature — with the House and the Senate fighting over who’s going to get shares of riverboat gambling revenues that are currently going to the communities where those riverboats are located.

One things for sure, if either measure passes — Switzerland County and other communities with riverboats are going to be the big losers.

A measure proposed last week by State Senator Robert Meeks would cap the amount of money that communities get and would pass those excess funds on to the state to help with its fund balances. If that measure were to pass, Switzerland County would stand to lose approximately $6 million per year.

That amendment was to be the focus of a hearing by a Senate committee this morning (Thursday) at 9 a.m. Should the amendment pass out of the committee, it will then go to the floor of the Senate for a vote. If successful there, it would then move over to the House.
“It’s very popular in the Republican caucus,” Mike Jones said of Senator Meeks’ amendment. “I think it will get out of the committee, and if that happens it will probably make it out of the Senate.”

Several Switzerland County officials will join officials from other riverboat communities in testifying against the amendment at this morning’s hearing, but everyone seems resigned to the bill moving on.

Mike Jones feels that if there’s a chance to defeat the amendment, it lies in the House chambers, where some lawmakers are trying to hold the line and keep riverboat revenues in the counties where the casinos are located.
But a new twist emerged Wednesday morning that could throw everything into havoc.

An amendment was proposed in the House by Representative Troy Woodruff of Vincennes that would taken even more riverboat revenues away from Switzerland County and others.

Troy Woodruff is a first-term Republican representative, and his amendment would take revenues from riverboat counties and then would distribute them around the state in such a way that every Indiana county that doesn’t have a riverboat would receive $1 million.

If that happens, even more money would leave Switzerland County.

Mike Jones said that currently the state has capped Switzerland County’s revenues at $10 million per year. Any profits over and above that line are already going into the state treasury.

Under Troy Woodruff’s amendment, Switzerland County’s cap would shrink to about $2.5 million per year. That would be necessary in order for all of the other counties to get their $1 million.

“It would cripple Switzerland County,” Mike Jones said. “I’m not sure that we can afford to have the services that we have to provide because Belterra is here if we’re cut that much. There are basic services that the county has to provide to keep riverboat services going — roads, bridges, emergency services, law enforcement, fire protection. That’s a huge chunk of money right there.”

The difference in the two amendments is that under Senator Meeks’ amendment, the money would go to the state; while under Representative Woodruff’s amendment, the money would go to counties.

It all adds up to an economic war — and Switzerland County is caught between the two sides.

“First of all, I can’t believe that in bigger counties around the state that $1 million means anything,” Mike Jones said. “You look at Marion County (Indianapolis). How much can $1 million affect their budget?”

The real fear in all of these measures is Representative Woodruff’s amendment, because it is attached to the state bill which would finance the new stadium for the Indianapolis Colts football team. Lawmakers who vote against the measure because of the amendment may face the wrath of their constituents back home because it will be seen as voting against the stadium.

They would also be voting against bringing an extra $1 million into their home counties.
With their backs against the wall, officials from riverboat counties continue to fight to keep both amendments from passing, but there are very few options should either be successful.

For Switzerland County, the last remaining option will be in the new Development Agreement currently being negotiated between the county and Belterra Casino Resort and Spa. Development Agreement funds are exempt from the state standards, so the county may look to a Development Agreement that provides a larger benefit to the county from Belterra.

The House committee discussing Representative Woodruff’s amendment closed its hearing on Wednesday afternoon without voting on the proposed amendment. The committee is expected to reconvene today (Thursday) at 10 a.m. to continue discussions on the matter.