New Delaware casino relief bill introduced

DOVER — Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.

After legislation to provide relief for Delaware’s three casinos failed last year a group of lawmakers is now going all in on a new proposal.

This one, they believe, will be a winner.

Sen. Brian Bushweller

Sen. Brian Bushweller

The new bill calls for changes on a smaller scale than last year’s version, although the ultimate goal is the same: Help save the state’s casinos, and in turn, the jobs and tax revenue they create.

Dover Downs, Harrington Raceway and Delaware Park have seen steadily declining slot revenues for nearly a decade — the result, primarily, of competition from other states.

Dover Downs, the only public company among the three, earned $1.87 million last year after losing $700,000 in 2014.

Senate Bill 183, filed last week, would add online sports betting, end the annual table game license fee of $3.75 million, cut the table game tax rate nearly in half and create credits for marketing and capital.

Most of the changes would be gradually phased in to lessen the impact on the state government’s coffers. The first year would result in an estimated $13 million hit to the government, said Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, the bill’s main sponsor.

Last year, Sen. Bushweller filed legislation that would have eliminated the license fee, slashed the table game tax rate of 29.4 percent, mandated the state pay more of the slot vendors’ fees, shifted some slot revenue from the state to the horsemen and implemented credits. The bill carried an estimated “cost” to the government of $15.8 million in year one and $45.8 million the next year.

Finding money to spend for road work and creating a budget proved to be a challenge for lawmakers, and the bill failed to gain momentum.

This time around, Sen. Bushweller is more confident. Though he declined to predict the proposal’s chance of passage, he believes the phased-in changes make it more palatable.

There’s another potential factor as well. Last month, lawmakers passed an executive branch-endorsed bill that effectively lowers the corporate income tax. Known as the Delaware Competes Act, the proposal has the goal of incentivizing companies to settle or stay in Delaware. Lawmakers openly speculated the bill was aimed chemical giant DuPont.

Sen. Bushweller and Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, used the floor vote in the Senate to urge lawmakers not to forget the casino industry.

The Delaware Competes Act drew just two votes in opposition and was quickly signed into law by Gov. Jack Markell.

Sen. Bushweller said that after acting to help companies and protect jobs in “northern New Castle,” lawmakers should now do the same for central Delaware.

“I’m hoping now that my colleagues throughout the state will see that the situation with the casinos is essentially the same,” he said.

In the wake of the act’s passage, he believes there is a greater sense of understanding among the General Assembly.

Despite his firm support of the casinos, chiefly Dover Downs, other legislators have different feelings. The casino relief bill went nowhere in 2015, and Senate Bill 183 could face serious struggles, especially if the state’s revenue projections take a downturn.

Some opponents of casino aid have charged legislation to provide relief is nothing more than a bailout, a claim supporters fervently disagree with.

The issue does not figure to draw objections along party lines, but a vote could see a geographical split. The bill has 13 sponsors, of whom eight are Republicans. All of the backers, however, hail from districts that are located at least partially in Kent or Sussex counties.

That is not an accident.

The casino industry is “very, very important” to Kent County’s economy, Sen. Bushweller said. He has repeatedly cited as a reason to act the number of Delawareans who could be unemployed if Dover Downs goes under.

According to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Dover Downs had 1,391 employees, of which 803 were full-time, as of the end of 2014.

One provision that may draw some attention is the expansion of the sports lottery. The bill would allow the casinos to operate online NFL betting under the state’s operation.

“Personally while I think it’s the right thing to do to add online sports betting, I don’t really think that anybody expects that to produce much in the terms of new revenue,” Sen. Bushweller said.

The legislation is in the Senate Finance Committee. The legislature reconvenes March 8.

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