Despite persistent political resistance inside and outside the Legislature, the push to expand gambling options in the state is back on this legislative session, and the various gaming interests — which have often competed against one another in previous sessions — say a renewed focus on collaboration should help in their goal of expanding gambling for the first time in more than two decades.
John Montford, chairman of Let Texans Decide, a coalition of gaming companies, track operators, trade groups and others who want Texas to legalize casinos, has met with groups representing casino and slot machine interests and is optimistic that they could agree on potential legislation that would bring a constitutional amendment on gambling before Texas voters.
“We’re working hard to build coalitions in favor of a referendum,” said Montford, a former state senator from Lubbock and the author of the legislation that created the Texas Lottery. “The members of the Legislature don’t have to be pro- or anti-gaming to support a referendum. We want people to have a fair say so.”
Efforts at such collaboration are not new in the industry, though they haven't proved successful in bringing a proposed amendment to voters on creating casinos, allowing slot machines or other such gambling measures.
But those interests haven't always been on the same page. Some previous efforts have come undone when race track and casino proponents battled to get a competitive advantage built into proposals pending in the Legislature.
In recent sessions, conflict between bills that would have allowed slot machines at horse racing tracks and those that would allow resort casinos have been part of the reason no such legislation made progress. Competing lobbyists and dollars sent mixed messages to legislators who may not have been keen to promote gambling in the first place out of fear of alienating anti-gaming voters.
If gambling factions are planning to compromise to help advance proposals, they have been keeping those plans fairly quiet to outsiders.
"I haven’t seen any indication that they are wanting to compromise their positions, and I think they will still have their own particular interests, which is one of the things that has kept it from getting close to a vote," said Talmadge Heflin, the director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former House Appropriations Committee chairman. He added that he doesn't think this will be the year when factions can come together to make progress on gambling legislation.
One measure that is getting early attention from various gaming interests is Senate Joint Resolution 6, filed by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. That proposes a constitutional amendment for voters, who would decide whether to allow the operation of casino games and slot machines in the state and whether to have a state video lottery system at horse racing tracks and other selected sites.
Ellis said that the impact of such an amendment would be far-reaching.
“Texans deserve the right to decide whether they want to continue draconian cuts to children's education, health care for the elderly and aid to veterans, or they want to move forward with an option to bring back jobs and money to Texas that we are giving away to other states,” Ellis said.
Similar bills in previous sessions have not gone to a vote in either chamber. Meanwhile, Texans who gamble are taking their money out of the state to do so, Ellis said in December.
In 1991, voters approved a constitutional amendment that created the Texas Lottery Commission. In 1987, voters agreed to allow betting on horse and dog racing for the first time since the 1930s. Bingo is legal on a local-option basis in the state.
Gambling opponents cite moral concerns and say the promises of revenues come without guarantees.
Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams said her group would continue to work with legislators to oppose expanded gaming in Texas.
"The best scenario thus far is, I don’t think powerful legislators in the majority party are filing these bills," Adams said. "We’re watching and listening and do not feel the battle is over, and anything can arise between now and the filing deadline. But we’re hopeful it’s an issue that is a non-starter."
Dan Fick, the executive director of Texas HORSE (Horse Organizations for Racing, Showing and Eventing), which advocates for expanded gaming at horse racing tracks across the state, said horse track leaders in his organization are putting together their own bill that would allow slot machines at all race tracks. But he said they are willing to consider more comprehensive legislation like Ellis’ bill.
“I would like to see all of the gaming initiatives agree on what direction we want to go,” Fick said. “Texas HORSE is more than willing to look at the other things that have been talked about like casinos and poker. We’re willing to look at anything as long as the horsemen are taken care of and benefit from it.”
Jack Pratt, the chairman of the Texas Gaming Association, said his group is working on a bill similar to Ellis’ that would authorize casinos and slot machines at race tracks. He said that after conversations with industry leaders in both fields, he believes compromise is possible.
“I’ve had a meeting with the decision-makers at the large tracks, and I think we can get there,” said Pratt, who has expressed similar confidence over past coalitions that fell short. “And if we can get there, we have an excellent chance of an industry that can employ a couple hundred thousand people and will spend $20 billion in capital improvements.”
Maurice Chammah contributed reporting.