Harrah’s bill in trouble after mayor cantrell says governor, city council members express ‘serious reservations’ legislature theadvocate.com gas laws worksheet

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The fate of the legislation ultimately depends on the will of legislators, not the mayor or governor, but the opposition of Edwards would deal a severe blow since many lawmakers will follow his lead. Opposition by Cantrell would only worsen the odds.

One set of questions for HB553 was spurred by an Advocate news report that Caesars Entertainment, Harrah’s parent company, has an option to be purchased by Vici Properties, a Las Vegas-based real estate investment trust. The news came as a surprise to the governor, mayor and key legislators and ignited criticism that Caesars officials were trying to pull a fast one on the public in Louisiana.

HB553 would give Harrah’s a no-bid contract extension of at least 30 years. The current license doesn’t expire for another six years in 2024. In return for the early renewal, Harrah’s officials have promised to invest $350 million to upgrade the non-gambling portions of the casino.

The promised investment has attracted letters of support from groups such as the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association and the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO.

Harrah’s lobbyists and senior executives won over a cross-section of state legislators late last year with a series of private Power Point presentations detailing the benefits of the $350 million investment: a 340-room hotel, a high-end food court, a night club and a roof over Fulton Street across Poydras Street from the casino. They said the investment would create 600 construction jobs, 500 full-time jobs and provide millions of extra dollars for the state and city.

The presentations – including a lunch in November at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in the Harrah’s hotel on Poydras Street – wowed lawmakers, with a cross-section of 17 legislators co-sponsoring the measure and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, signing on as the main sponsor.

HB553 breezed through a House committee and then the full House in late March without any House members asking tough questions. Several lawmakers said they saw no point in challenging the speaker – who decides what committees they sit on and when their bills are heard – on a bill that was destined to pass.

Dan Real, the Harrah’s New Orleans general manager, David Satz, a senior vice president and attorney for Caesars, and Randy Haynie, the lead Baton Rouge-based lobbyist hired by Caesars, all spent several hours watching Wednesday’s Senate session from the public seating area, meeting occasionally with senators at a velvet rope that separates the senators from the public.

“They’re obviously on pins and needles about what’s happening,” state Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, said after huddling with them for several minutes early in the afternoon. At that point, Carter said, support for the legislation seemed to be coming together.

Jaeger, another New Orleans developer, Wayne Ducote, and real estate attorney Mike Sherman later questioned Caesars’ deal with Vici Properties, saying that it would allow Caesars to cash in after the Legislature extended the lucrative state license to operate the only land casino in Orleans Parish. The three men all said the state deserved a portion of Caesars’ windfall, with Jaeger and Ducote estimating it would reach as much as $500 million.

Caesars’ lobbyists downplayed the Harrah’s New Orleans deal with Vici, with a Caesars spokesman sending out a news story Wednesday reporting that Vici had purchased Caesars casinos in Philadelphia and a tower at Caesars in Las Vegas. As in those deals, Caesars would have leased the Harrah’s New Orleans casino back from Vici. The Louisiana Gaming Control Board would have to approve the proposed deal between Harrah’s New Orleans and Vici, said Ronnie Jones, its chairman.