House rejects Senate version of Harrah's contract bill; conference committee negotiating

(WVUE) - At the urging of House Speaker Taylor Barras, the state House of Representatives rejected significant amendments made to the proposed Harrah's Casino contract extension by the Senate earlier this week as negotiations continue away from the House floor.

The House members also agreed to send the measure to a conference committee made up of both House and Senate members as time runs short on the regular legislative session. House and Senate leaders hope to wrap up the session Friday to prepare for a special legislative session commencing Tuesday to deal with the ongoing budget shortfall.

Barras authored the Harrah's bill which made it out the House without much scrutiny. He told House members late Thursday afternoon that negotiations were continuing with all the relevant parties, including Harrah's.

The state's only land-based casino located at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans wants a new 30-year contract, even though its current contract does not expire for six years. In exchange for a new contract, Harrah's promises to invest $350 million into its casino facilities, including building a second hotel, new restaurants and more entertainment spaces.

Under the bill the Senate passed Wednesday, the casino would have to pay $40 million up front to the state for the early renewal, with 75 percent of that going to the state and the rest to the city of New Orleans.

Currently, Harrah's is required to make annual payments of $60 million to state government. The Senate bill raises the amount to $80 million.

"What we still have to work through is some of the finer details. The advanced payments and all those things will likely remain. We're just working through the details," Barras told House members before the unanimous vote to send the bill to a conference committee.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said during a stop in New Orleans earlier in the day that he wants the best possible financial deal for the state, and that the Senate version was more to his liking.

"I believe the Legislature is exercising its will independent of anything that has been approved at this point by the folks at  Harrah's, but the bill as it is configured right now is a much better deal for the state of Louisiana, and it at least in part addresses reservations that I expressed to Harrah's, to Speaker Barras, the author of the bill, and to the New Orleans delegation, as well as the New Orleans mayor and council."

The governor said even though his final opinion on the proposal would come once the bill makes it out of the Legislature, he said a new financial investment in New Orleans is attractive.

"I'm going to reserve final judgment until a bill hits my desk, so that I can take a look at it.  I can tell you I generally favor anything that would invest $350 million in our state, in this case in downtown New Orleans, create 900 permanent jobs, create a whole bunch of temporary construction jobs in the interim, but also increase the payments by Harrah's to the city of New Orleans and to the state of Louisiana for the remainder of the deal," said the governor.

Opponents of the proposed contract extension said Harrah's would get a huge no-bid gift from the state, if approved.

Harrah's insists it would not get something for nothing.

"Harrah's $350 million investment will create 600 construction jobs and 900 new jobs in New Orleans and add millions of tax revenues to help the city and state now, all without any incentives or subsidy. We greatly appreciate the efforts of Senator Karen Carter Peterson for her efforts to bring economic growth to New Orleans and Louisiana. Harrah's looks forward to continuing discussions with the Speaker and leadership on additional amendments," said spokesman Ryan Berni.

Meanwhile, the special session will be the sixth since Gov. Edwards took office in 2016. He wants lawmakers to consider raising new revenues to stave off painful cuts to health care and higher education.

Edwards said talks he has had with lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle suggest they are now willing to work to resolve the budget shortfall for the new budget year which begins July 1.

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