Senators Talk, Without Voting, About Casinos in Texas

A proposed constitutional amendment to legalize casino gaming might see substantial changes before the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce votes on it.

For example, Senate Joint Resolution 64 as currently written would hurt charitable organizations that use bingo to raise funds, said Phil Sanderson, director of governmental relations for Texas Charity Advocates. State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who authored the bill and chairs the committee, said during a committee hearing Wednesday that he is sensitive to those concerns.

“The state gets about $30 million per year from bingo. The bill is looking to help a horse racing industry in dire need,” Sanderson said, an effort he supports. “But it also needs to keep bingo in mind so nonprofits can continue earning money for their charitable causes.”

Texans spend about $3 billion to gamble in adjacent states every year, according to Let Texans Decide, which supports a statewide vote on legalizing casinos. And Carona, along with Texas horse racing industry leaders and gaming advocates, hopes to bring that money back to Texas.

Jason Velasco, a businessman from Round Rock, said he travels regularly to WinStar Casino in Oklahoma to play poker, a game he compared to chess.

“I’m always surprised and amazed that the majority of players I’m sitting with at WinStar are from Texas,” Velasco said. “I simply would like the opportunity to vote to have legalized poker games in Texas.”

Legislators have been trying to legalize gambling for many sessions. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has been working on the issue for two decades. The last major expansion of gaming was in 1991, when lawmakers and then voters approved the state lottery.

“I’m not a gambling man, but I have carried similar legislation since Ann Richards was in,” Ellis said. This session, he filed SJR 6, another bill that would put a gambling amendment before Texas voters, and said he would work with Carona’s office to put together a good bill to send to the floor.

Carona said his bill is sensitive to Texans who may be ideologically opposed to gambling by limiting the number of total casinos in the state and by putting most of the details into the constitutional amendment itself — that means changes to the rules surrounding casinos would require another statewide vote.

But for some Texans, any amount of casino gambling is too much. Melinda Fredricks, the vice chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas, doesn’t buy the idea that Republican legislators can support a statewide vote on gambling even if they oppose gambling itself. The Republican Party platform includes anti-gambling language.

“We see this as a veiled attempt to pass the buck,” Fredricks said. “The root issue is diametrically opposed to our core values.”

But Texans are already gambling, said Jack Pratt, head of the Texas Gaming Association. They’re doing it in other states, in the lottery, at race tracks, and illegally in 8-liner halls and online, he said.

“Two-thirds of adults have gone out of state and taken their Texas money to gamble,” Pratt said. “There seems to be a fear to let them have the vote.”

Many gambling advocates and opponents say the votes likely aren’t there to get the necessary two-thirds approval in each chamber to send the amendment to Texas voters. Carona himself acknowledged at a Monday press conference that it might not pass this session.

With many groups hoping to have their amendments and interests considered during revisions, the bill remains pending in the committee.

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