Nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina, gaming is once again helping rebuild the economy of the U.S. Gulf Coast. Just as occurred when casinos first came to Mississippi and Louisiana in the early ‘90s, the industry is bringing jobs, revenue and hope to the struggling region. And this time, the payoff looks to be bigger and better than the first time around.
Already, a handful of casinos have reopened in temporary facilities, and business reportedly has been brisk. More damaged facilities are set to open later this year, and recently announced plans by several companies to expand the non-gaming amenities and features offered at these new-and-improved properties point to bright days ahead. Getting employees back to work and helping the areas devastated by the hurricanes recover has been priority number one for our industry since the storms hit, and it is encouraging to see such substantial progress already being made.
Much of the progress will be helped by the recent passage of the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act of 2005, the long-negotiated package of business tax relief provisions signed by President Bush in December. Throughout the deliberations leading up to the vote, a small group of legislators led by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) fought to exclude casinos and some other businesses from receiving the proposed benefits. The final version of the bill prevents commercial golf courses, country clubs, massage parlors, hot tub facilities, and liquor stores from taking advantage of 50 percent bonus depreciation or net operating loss carry-back provisions.
However, thanks to a provision pushed through by Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the commercial casino industry along with horse and dog racing interests are subjected to narrower compromise language that excludes the deduction of gaming equipment and casino floor space, but allows non-gaming amenities, such as hotel, retail, dining, convention areas, parking garages and other portions of the facility, to be treated as any other business on the Gulf Coast. Also included is an employee retention tax credit, which is not subject to the gaming carve-out.
From the beginning, the AGA worked with our allies in Congress to fight Rep. Wolf’s campaign of half-truths and outright falsehoods. Members of the congressional gaming caucus and even Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour weighed in to fight for our industry, and we are thankful for their support. Special recognition should be reserved for the three members of the Nevada delegation, Reps. Shelley Berkley, Jim Gibbons, and Jon Porter, as well as Rep. Frank LoBiondo from New Jersey. Their stand against the final version of the House bill because of its exclusions of the gaming industry is a testament to their commitment to the tens and thousands of hard-working gaming employees who don’t deserve to be treated differently than workers from any other business in the country.
While we certainly would prefer the gaming industry not be excluded from any portion of the bill, we are grateful for our allies’ efforts on our behalf and are confident these federal funds will speed the road to a full recovery in the Gulf Coast region.
I also am pleased to report that the Gaming Industry Katrina Relief Fund, set up by the AGA in the days immediately following the disaster, has raised more than $700,000 for Gulf Coast gaming employees affected by the storms. At the AGA, the strong commitment we demonstrate to our companies and our colleagues is a reflection of the industry we serve. Nowhere was that commitment more evident than in the response of our companies in the days, weeks and now months following this disaster.
The Gaming Industry Katrina Relief Fund was set up to give organizations and individuals who did not have a mechanism to contribute a way to help their colleagues in the devastated region, but I don’t think even we were prepared for the outpouring of support we received. The collective response and rush to the aid of those in need was absolutely remarkable and stands as a true testament to the solidarity of the gaming community both along the Gulf Coast and nationwide.
We received generous donations from gaming operator and supplier companies, as well as several individuals who submitted contributions online or at Global Gaming Expo.
Major corporate contributors included Argosy Gaming Company, Ameristar Casinos, Aztar Corporation, Bally Gaming and Systems, Gaming Partners International, International Game Technology (IGT), JCM American, MEI, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Reed Exhibitions, Shuffle Master and Trump Casinos, as well as several individual properties across the country.
The funds were distributed to affected gaming employees along the Gulf Coast through existing 501(c)(3)-certified relief funds set up by gaming companies to help their employees recover from the devastating effects of the hurricane, representing more than 15,500 employees affected by the disaster. The distribution system we have set up ensures that all funds raised go directly to affected employees.
We are grateful for the contributions we have received and for our ability to play even a small part in helping these individuals rebuild their lives. Everywhere along the Gulf Coast, the early signs of rejuvenation are evident.
Of course, there are many challenges that lie ahead. The rebuilding still left to be done is substantial, and overall community re-development will be necessary before large numbers of out-of-state visitors return. The gaming industry remains committed to making sure this rebirth happens sooner rather than later.
There is one cautionary note from the past months here in Washington. A number of prominent legislators and newsmakers, including national political commentator George Will, recently vocalized their distaste for the exclusions of our industry and others from certain facets of the Katrina relief bill. This attempt to legislate morality is dangerous not only for our industry, but for the democratic ideals upon which our nation was founded. This type of discrimination cannot – and if the AGA has anything to say about it, will not – become precedent. The AGA will work hard to make sure that the voice of the commercial gaming employee is always heard.