Bill Would Direct Money From Slots at New Orleans Airport to Saints Payments

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Tax bills backed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco to help raise money for the state's annual payments to the New Orleans Saints remain stalled, so the House approved a different financing mechanism for the Saints deal: slot machines at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans.

If voters from Jefferson Parish - where the airport is located - approve the slot machines, some of the tax money generated from the slots would go toward the state's contract with the Saints, under an amendment added to the slot machine bill before the House shipped the legislation to the Senate in a 55 to 44 vote Tuesday.

''It would be a horrible black eye on the state of Louisiana to let this franchise move or to let them get out of the contract,'' said Rep. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, sponsor of the Saints amendment.

Martiny said it was an alternative way to help the state deal with its projected annual shortfalls in its payments to the team - part of a 10-year, $186 million agreement negotiated by Gov. Mike Foster's administration in 2001.

The state is estimated to be about $10 million short on its $15 million payment due to the Saints on July 5, and Martiny said he didn't believe the Legislature would approve using general state tax dollars to fill in the hole.

Blanco is pushing tax hikes on New Orleans hotels, rental cars and football tickets to raise money for the Saints deal, but the tax package has run into problems from New Orleans area lawmakers who want the money to be used for other things. The taxes were on the schedule for a Wednesday House committee meeting, though it was unclear whether they would be discussed.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Blanco's staff was reviewing the language added to the slots bill but still had plans to move forward with the separate tax package.

Under Rep. Cedric Richmond's bill, slot machines would be placed in areas open only to ticketed passengers at Armstrong airport, past security checkpoints and in enclosed areas - if local voters approve.

A 21.5 percent tax would be placed on slot machine proceeds, and estimates are that the machines could raise anywhere from $15 million to $28 million a year, Richmond said.

After the payment to the Saints was made, the rest of the money would be split among several areas. Police pay raises in New Orleans would be paid for with the dollars and landing fees at the airport would be lowered. Jefferson Parish and the city of Kenner also would receive a portion of the tax revenue.

Some money would cover the administrative costs for having the slot machines.

Blanco tried to renegotiate the state's deal with Saints owner Tom Benson, but Benson called off negotiations until after the 2005 season. The current deal expires after the 2010 season, but it enables the Saints to end the deal after this season by repaying $81 million.