Agenda Texas: Another Run at Gambling

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: In the past, bills pushing to expand gambling in Texas have either had the support of casinos or race tracks, not both. But this year is different.

As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again in the Legislature for supporters of casino gambling in Texas.

For the 27th session in a row (unofficial estimate), there’s a push to create casino gambling in Texas. The legislation has been labeled many things over the years: a quick source of new revenues in tight budgets, a way to bolster new investment in flush times, and now, a way to recapture money that is rightfully ours.

“According to a study released this month, Texans spend nearly $3 billion annually at gaming facilities in Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico, helping to pay for their roads, their schools and their hospitals," said state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. "And it’s time that do something about that."

He's been working on casino legislation for the last few sessions, but his plan this year is much more comprehensive. In the past, gaming bills have either had the support of casinos or race tracks. But not both.

That split support had doomed the efforts. This time, Carona said, both groups are on board.

“Let me make clear that this legislation has very broad support," he said. "While not all stakeholder concerns are resolved in this bill, we have come a long way. And it is my hope that we’ll continue to work together to bring forward a bill that is best for Texas."

The senator said his legislation is still fluid — many changes could be made. So for now, there’s no price tag on how much money casino gambling would generate. But billions are expected from the three giant destination resort casinos and 18 other facilities that would be authorized under his resolution.

“Texans want this opportunity. Recent polling indicates that 80 percent of Texans say they ought to have a final say on this issue," Carona said. "And 78 percent of Republican primary voters are eager to vote in favor of this measure. I believe Texans can decide this issue for themselves, and I believe it’s high time we give them that chance.”

That poll Carona cites was commissioned by a group that supports expanded gambling. Other polls have shown support a bit lower.

But hey, if you want to pass something in the Legislature, you need to do one of two things: Show what problem the legislation would fix or, as casino supporters did this week, show an enemy that would be defeated by this bill. And according to casino supporters, we have met the enemy — and it is Oklahoma.

“In particular, we’re hemorrhaging money to Oklahoma," said John Montford of Let Texans Decide. "Not only do they recruit our best high school football players. They also snooker us each day by building their gaming empire on the backs of Texans."

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond was even less diplomatic when explaining what he sees as the benefits of casinos in Texas.

“Texans will no longer have to travel to third-world countries in order to game," Hammond joked. "It’s unfair and unconscionable that we are making these people travel to these third-world counties that surround Texas."

The state’s hatred of Oklahoma aside, there are still several roadblocks to casinos in Texas. Carona’s resolution needs a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate before it heads to the ballot as a constitutional amendment this November.

And on the Senate side, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has a history of threatening a filibuster over gaming legislation. As debates have neared in the past, she has even put tennis shoes on her desk on the Senate floor to let people know she’s ready to go if needed.

And, of course, if a resolution passes the House and Senate, then there’s the final statewide vote — a vote that will certainly include groups opposing casinos on moral grounds along with some backed by those neighboring states’ casinos that don’t want to lose business.

Carona’s Business and Commerce Committee will hear testimony Wednesday morning on the proposed constitutional amendment that would create casinos.

Would you bet on casinos in Texas? Let us know at agendatexas@kut.org. And, of course, everyone’s a winner when you follow us on Twitter: @AgendaTexas.

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