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An Ace in the Hole 

Organized gambling might not have a close friend with the current governmental regime, but its eventual expansion is a sure bet.

Rep. Ernest Wooten has his name attached to a set of bills that increases the number of video poker machines in truck-stop casinos and ups the maximum bet players can stick into the one-armed bandits.

But if you ask the retired Republican sheriff from Plaquemines Parish what impact his legislation would have, he answers with a John Wayne bravado and Rodney Dangerfield twitch that has become all too familiar to those who hear his infamous one-liners every day during session: "It's not an expansion of gambling, in my opinion. It all depends on your perspective, and that's my perspective today."

Wooten was waiting for the House Criminal Justice Committee to convene as he uttered those words. His gambling bills, along with a few others, were scheduled for a hearing. When the meeting started, Terry Ryder, the governor's chief attorney, brought things to a screeching halt by opposing all of the gambling bills on behalf of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who has vowed to veto any such expansion.

"I'm no expert on gambling," Ryder says. "I'm just a messenger for the governor."

A dry laugh and cackle came from the committee chairman, Rep. Danny Martiny, a Kenner Republican who slouched in his leather chair and said, "He's just a messenger."

Wooten and Martiny pulled their gambling bills from the agenda that day, promising not to bring them back -- in response to Blanco's request -- but another lawmaker with a tournament poker bill stood his ground.

In the aftermath, a slick-looking lobbyist in alligator shoes and a suit as close to zoot as modernly possible offered some feedback. After identifying himself as a lobbyist for the video poker industry, he call Blanco "hypocritical" for using the industry's money in her budget and referred to her as nothing more than a speed bump.

"We will come back at a different time, under a different governor and different leadership, and this industry will get its due like every other," says Alton E. Ashy of the Baton Rouge-based Advanced Strategies.

But expanding gambling in Louisiana likely has less to do with Blanco and more to do with previous governors like Buddy Roemer, who ushered in the lottery, video poker and riverboat casinos, as well as Mike Foster, who is credited with accelerating gambling and opening the door to Indian casinos. They created an environment of political acceptance that still thrives today and promises to flourish in the future, critics say.

Ashy also made it clear that governors after Blanco will likewise play more of a role in the industry's expansion. It's an indication that the issue could have a major part in the upcoming gubernatorial elections, as far as platforms and war chests go.

"They have a lot at stake," says C.B. Forgotston, who lobbied against the New Orleans land-based casino alongside such famous names as the Brennan restaurant family. He also opposed the lottery while working for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, a lobby with major sway. "It's a statement of fact to say they are going to try and elect whoever they want."

Forgotston also finds himself among many cynics who believe the Legislature hasn't heard the last of the gambling industry this session.

"One thing I've seen them do in past sessions is act like they have been beaten and, at the last minute, attach the substance of a half-dozen video poker bills onto a conference committee report," Forgotston says. "It's a very slick tactic."

The gambling industry is already playing tough this session. It has managed to wiggle out of a bill that would ban smoking in most places in the state, watered down another measure that would have intercepted all winnings from parents behind on child support and managed to get Orleans Parish exempted from a bill that would have legitimized Texas Hold'em poker so that Harrah's land-based casino wouldn't face competition in the city limits.

On the horizon, slot machines masquerading as bingo are making their way into communities where video poker is illegal -- thanks to an alleged legislative loophole -- and an alluring economic argument is beginning to gain traction in some areas.

Hurricane Rita disrupted five casinos in Lake Charles, and locals are beginning to grumble for economic support to help create more jobs -- as was done for Harrah's a few years back. A similar push is coming in Grant Parish, where an Indian casino is viewed by many as a saving grace to the local economy.

Ashy and others in the industry know this and recognize the argument as a way to shake the negative patina off gambling. In fact, that point is already being made as part of the budding debate over teacher pay -- and it could be just the beginning.

"I think it's somewhat hypocritical for the governor to state that we're going to pad her political nest by getting teachers on board, but we're using dirty gambling money to do it," Ashy told the committee. "At some point in time we're going to have to realize that this is a business. It is a legal business."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at Jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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