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Ronnie Johns: A Life in the Hot Seat

Following three years as chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board and close to 40 years in public service, Ronnie Johns steps down.

Ronnie Johns: A Life in the Hot Seat

Ronnie Johns’ political career started as many do—on his own doorstep.

That modest start grew into a political first. When Johns in 2021 was appointed the head of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board (LGCB), he became the only person in state history to head the state gaming board and state lottery in a single career.

Johns began in local government on his Bunkie, Louisiana hometown city council before moving on to the Louisiana State Mineral Board for four years. Next up was the role of chairman at the Louisiana Lottery Corporation Board, followed by 12 years in the Louisiana House of Representatives and 10 in the Louisiana Senate.

Johns then spent what would be the final three years of his career as chairman of the LGCB, a full-time position. He was appointed by then-Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, and succeeded his friend, Ronnie Jones, a public safety professional, gaming regulator, educator and public speaker, as the LGCB chief.

Johns took full advantage of his time in the legislature, authoring several pro-business initiatives and domestic violence legislation, and working with a private foundation to combat human trafficking, to name a few examples. But it was his work in the gaming industry that made a real splash in Louisiana.

Johns oversaw the 2021 launch of retail sports betting and the 2022 launch of digital wagering in Louisiana. Sports betting was first approved in a statewide voter referendum in November 2020. During that election, 55 of the 64 parishes voted to legalize, essentially leaving a cutout in the middle of the state where sports betting remains illegal.

House Bill 697 laid out the framework for sports betting in Louisiana when it was passed and approved by the state’s House and Senate and signed by Edwards in June 2021. The first retail sports bet was taken four months later. Edwards also signed two other sports betting-related bills in quick succession—Senate Bill 247 and Senate Bill 142.

Mobile sports betting went live in January 2022. Brick-and-mortar sportsbooks are located at casinos and horse tracks, and the industry is regulated by the state lottery. Since sports betting was regulated, more than $6 billion has been wagered in Louisiana, generating more than $100 million in tax revenue.

As legal sports betting has matured, Johns and the LGCB have refined their regulations to better suit the market. Most recently, Johns led the movement to ban college-player prop bets in Louisiana, which will take effect August 1.

The NCAA has been urging regulators across the U.S. to prohibit these kinds of bets. But Johns told KTLA-TV that he and the LGCB were ahead of the curve, voting to implement the ban in April, before the NCAA began lobbying individual states to ban the bets.

“We have an obligation to protect the integrity of sports betting, but we also have an obligation to protect the safety and the integrity of college athletes and college athletics as a whole,” Johns told the TV station.

Several other states, including Ohio and Maryland, implemented bans later in spring. And still other states, including Massachusetts, banned college prop bets in their original rules.

 

Rolling on a River

Johns followed his near namesake, Ronnie Jones, into the LGCB’s chairman’s seat.

When the two first met, the similarities of their names bound them for life—not just as state professionals, but also in the contact lists of many people’s phones.

“I get his calls, he gets my calls; that’s been going on since 2013 or so,” Jones laughs. “We started our relationship with this very similar name issue and it’s been fun ever since.”

“When I was appointed the chairman’s position, the one that Ronnie’s leaving now, in 2013, he was a senator at the time,” Jones explains. “And I got to know him more after I became chairman, because he sat on one of the key committees that heard gaming legislation, and he had a keen interest in the industry.

“His constituents were people employed by the gaming industry on the support side, the people who deliver flowers and liquor and food. He had a real interest in promoting the economic development of gaming in the state.”

One of the most notable highlights in Johns’ career was the 2018 riverboat legislation. This stemmed from a working task force he approved in 2016—an initiative headed by Jones—to address what Johns calls “vital issues” in the industry.

Over 17 months, the task force heard testimony from stakeholders across the industry. This resulted in three major recommendations, the biggest being legislation to move the casinos from water to land, which Johns ultimately sponsored.

The 2018 riverboat legislation permitted 15 legacy riverboats to operate as land-based casinos, a move that led to three new land-based casinos, two casinos currently under construction, the renovation and expansion of the Caesars casino in New Orleans and $1.4 billion in capital investment for the state.

The latest riverboat to move onto land is the Belle of Baton Rouge. Its landlord, Gaming and Leisure Properties Inc., will contribute $111 million towards the cost of the move, which is estimated to come out at around $141 million. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, the new location will open in September 2025.

 

Rocky Road to Success

It was Johns’ involvement in getting sports betting passed in Louisiana that remains a standout feature of his time in public service. Johns himself calls it the “biggest change” he experienced during his three-year tenure as chairman.

“It has been a game-changer for the gaming industry and continues to grow each month,” Johns says.

He adds that the legislation has been imperative for encouraging responsible gaming in the state. “I have seen a real sense of urgency by both regulators and the gaming industry as well to address compulsive gambling programs,” he says. “The industry has taken a real proactive approach to the issue, and as a regulator I certainly welcome that.

“In Louisiana, we have a very active and viable compulsive gambling program that is funded by some of the casino and sports betting revenue to the state. I hope that this move towards responsible gaming continues to grow.”

But getting sports betting approved in Louisiana wasn’t straightforward. Jones lobbied the legislature to approve sports betting on two occasions, but without success. Ultimately, he suggested that Johns introduce a study bill, which passed, and put the state on the road to legalization.

“It would be left to Ronnie Johns to only oversee the passage of the bill and implement it,” Jones says. “We’d like to tell people I was there for the conception, but I was a deadbeat dad for the birth of sports betting because I wasn’t there (he’s already stepped away from the LGCB) when the first bet was placed.”

 

Taking a Step Back

Johns is certain that this is the right time for him to step down. He plans to spend time with his family, which includes one daughter, one son-in-law and five grandchildren. He and his wife also plan to travel and carry out charity work in their local community of Lafayette.

Reflecting on his last three years at the LGCB, Johns has a long list of people to thank. Of those who have been particularly helpful, Johns names Dave Rebuck, who retired as director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement in March. Jay McDaniel, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, gets a shoutout too.

Working with regulators from other states was key to Johns’ success.

“We do have a great relationship with the team in Louisiana, and it is often that we reach out to them for information or to provide information,” McDaniel says. “Ronnie has fostered a great working relationship between our agencies, and I expect that to continue. I hate to see him go, but wish him the best.”

Says Johns, “Collaboration with other states can only bring greater success to any regulator, as the industry and its issues are changing so rapidly. Every state regulates differently, but the issues, problems and possible solutions are no doubt the same around the country.”

One of these shared concerns is illegal gambling, a concern that will no doubt persist after Johns steps down.

“One of the biggest issues facing everyone is the illegal online gaming operations that are not regulated, bring no tax revenue to government, and bring tremendous challenges to responsible gaming,” he continues. “It’s going to take a united effort by all regulators to combat this and hopefully find a solution to what I consider the biggest issue facing each state.”

On a more personal note, Johns also credits the ethics his parents taught him in encouraging him towards a life of public service.

“I was fortunate to have parents who instilled in me the value of community service,” he says. “They taught me that we have an obligation to give back to our community, our state, and our country.

“Government cannot be all things to all people. It’s really the responsibility of each of us to give back, to try to make our communities better, to preserve the incredible freedoms that we enjoy in this country. As I tell people all the time, you’d better be involved, because if you are not, then someone else will be and you might not like the end result.”

 

Who’s Up Next?

As of early June, Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry had not appointed Johns’ successor. Johns was scheduled to retire June 30.

In mid-May, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that LGCB deputy Chris Herbert was the leading candidate. Importantly, Johns has communicated the seriousness of the position to Landry’s staff, which hopefully should reinforce the scouting process for this full-time position. Clearly, it’s not for the faint of heart.

“We’re hoping that (Landry) does the right thing and appoints someone who has the integrity and the credentials and the foresight to keep this industry going and be supportive to the state,” Jones says.

Johns’ advice to his successor centers on the good, old-fashioned values of hard work and honesty.

“My advice to them will be to be consistent in their approach to the regulation of the gaming industry,” he suggests. “Be fair and be consistent.”

And constant communication with the industry will keep things moving along.

“I would advise that person to have an open-door policy with the industry to discuss their issues, problems, solutions and possible capital investment growth in the Louisiana market. Communication with everyone involved in the regulatory process is vital to a successful and compliant industry.”

“And very simply, do things the right way. Do not cut corners.”

McDaniel goes a step further, challenging not just Johns’ successor, but regulators across the U.S.

“From all the time I’ve dealt with Ronnie, I can say without a doubt that he left an example to follow and left a mark on the industry not only in his state, but nationwide as well,” McDaniel says. “I believe he was open and transparent in his ideas to make the industry better, and maintaining integrity by advancing the industry within the laws and regulations that we all have to work within.

“That is a goal that I believe we as regulators all should have for the industry we oversee.”

 

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