It has been two months since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck a devastating blow to the U.S. gaming industry, and despite great hardship, we are beginning to pick up the pieces and turn a hopeful eye to the future.
The resilience of our industry is visible everywhere along the Gulf Coast. Several of the least damaged facilities in Lousiana already are back up-and-running, and other facilities are taking advantage of what resources they have to provide for their employees and communities as the cleanup continues. One example that immediately comes to mind is the Isle of Capri Casino in Biloxi, which for the past month has opened its hotel – which sustained minimal damage in the storm – to emergency workers, construction crews and the local power company working to restore the first semblances of normalcy to their home. Isle’s hotel opening has put several hundred employees back to work and on the road to rebuilding their lives.
This level of progress certainly has not been possible at most of the affected properties, but these early signs of recovery are encouraging. Whatever the status of their gaming properties in this damaged region, each commercial casino company has continued to put their employees first, helping them find jobs at sister casino properties or as a part of the company’s own cleanup and rebuilding projects, when possible.
The key to truly restoring the lives affected by this storm is the rebuilding and reopening of these facilities as quickly as possible. Now that the Mississippi legislature has agreed to allow casinos along the Gulf Coast to build onshore, that rebuilding effort can begin in earnest. I have spoken with many of our industry representatives along the Coast, and there is a palpable excitement about this decision and what it could mean for the future prosperity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We have a long way to go, but if the past two months have taught us anything, it is that our industry is strong and capable of great things in the face of adversity.
Unfortunately, the storms also have taught us that, despite the general public’s broad acceptance of casino gambling, there still is an extremely vocal minority who remains opposed to gambling on moral grounds and will seize upon any opportunity to stop our industry in its tracks. This opposition was first seen during the Mississippi legislature’s debate over allowing casinos to move on land, and it most recently has been visible right here in Washington.
For the better part of last month, the AGA has worked with its congressional allies from gaming states and others to secure legislation to aid in the recovery of our employees and their families. Now, Congress turns to the task of how to help the businesses affected by the ravages of these storms – including the gaming industry – rebuild and get people back to work.
Some members of Congress opposed to gambling have attempted to keep our industry out of legislation that would provide tax relief to businesses working to rebuild – hoping to muddy the waters by suggesting our industry is seeking special treatment while the poor and jobless suffer. This could not be further from the truth.
The commercial casino industry is not seeking special tax breaks or favors related to the administration’s post-Katrina recovery proposal. We are merely joining Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour in asking that we be treated like “any other business” in the region. To treat our business differently also would break precedent, as disaster recovery zone legislation historically has not excluded any type of business. It would be misguided and harmful to the Gulf Coast for Congress to start this trend now.
Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast alone, the commercial casino industry employs nearly 16,000 people. Mississippi loses $500,000 in revenue each day the Gulf Coast casinos are not operational, and figures are similar in Louisiana. In addition, hundreds of other businesses, such as suppliers, vendors, restaurants, hotels and retail stores, and thousands of other jobs in the region are dependent on our industry’s vigorous presence. If the intent of this disaster recovery tax legislation is to assist in rebuilding the Gulf Coast economy and in getting people back to work as quickly as possible, it is counterintuitive to exclude the very industry that has revitalized the region and is its largest employer.
From the governors to state legislators to mayors and city council members – every individual political leader faced with the daunting challenge of rebuilding these ravaged communities has indicated the Gulf Coast’s recovery is directly linked with the full recovery of our industry, and we are grateful for their continued support. In his recent testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Snow reiterated that getting people back to work is the foundation of the economic revival of the hurricane-devastated region and that tax provisions to facilitate rebuilding and re-employment should apply across-the-board and should not discriminate against particular types of industries.
Individuals certainly have a right to their opinions about the morality of gambling. But when these beliefs come at the cost of getting honest and hardworking people back to work and legitimate businesses back up and running and contributing to the community, I just don’t see the morality in that.
The AGA, with help from our allies in Congress, will continue to fight for our companies and their employees as we work to secure assistance with our industry’s rebuilding efforts. Congress cannot deny the tens of thousands of people along the Mississippi Gulf Coast who depend on our industry the same benefits received by everyone else. Our employees deserve to be treated fairly.
But whatever the outcome of this legislation, I am confident our industry will prevail. In the wake of tragedy, we are presented with a tremendous opportunity to lead the way in returning to even greater glory the communities along the Gulf Coast that have come to depend on us for their livelihood. The progress may at times be slow, but there is a bright future ahead.