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Lobby Firm Helped Draft GOP Letter to Racing Commission

State Sen. Joan Huffman acknowledges that a lobby firm with ties to casino interests helped her draft a GOP caucus letter blasting a proposal to allow expanded gambling at horse tracks. Now a major proponent of the tracks is crying foul.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, speaks during a Texas Tribune event on Jan. 12, 2015.

When the Senate Republican Caucus fired off a letter to the Texas Racing Commission last summer blasting a proposal to allow a new form of electronic gambling, it was interpreted as standard conservative opposition to expanded gaming in Texas.

But a proponent of the horse racing industry suspects something else was at play: opposition from out-of-state casino interests that didn't want the homegrown competition.

The reason?

Locke Lord, a law firm that lobbies the Legislature on behalf of Landry’s Inc. — owner of the Golden Nugget casino chain — helped draft some of the wording in the letter sent out by the caucus. The owner and CEO of Landry's is mega political contributor Tilman Fertitta, who recently celebrated the opening of a new Golden Nugget in Louisiana, a state that depends heavily on Texas gamblers.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, then the chairwoman of the caucus, told The Texas Tribune this week that she asked Locke Lord to help with “legal questions” and “historical information” in the letter. The caucus expressed its opposition to the state racing commission’s proposal — later adopted — to allow “historical racing” devices, which some opponents compare to slot machines.

“They had some input, but they were not involved with the policymaking,” Huffman said. “There was some basic information provided, and I took it from there.”

Asked specifically if the firm helped with the wording of the letter, the senator said, "Yeah, somewhat. I think that's fair to say."

Chief Locke Lord lobbyist Robert Miller would not say whether he was involved in helping to draft the letter.

“I’ll just defer to Sen. Huffman on that,” Miller said.

David Stephens, a member and past president of the Texas Thoroughbred Association, expressed outrage at Locke Lord’s involvement in the letter-writing process and said it’s “evidence that out-of-state casinos are behind the effort to put the horse industry in Texas out of business.”

The perennially ailing horse racing industry sees historical racing, also known as instant racing, as a way to generate new revenue and save the sport.

“The fact that the lobby firm that represents a major casino owner with deep pockets played a role in drafting the letter taints the entire process, and the senators who signed the letter should be ashamed,” Stephens said. He said the senators should be making decisions based on “facts, not propaganda prepared by out-of-state special interests.”

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to hear from the Texas Racing Commission on Wednesday as part of the panel’s examination of the budgets of various state agencies. A proposed Senate budget zeroed out funding for the agency, highlighting dissatisfaction and anger with the commission’s August move to allow the new form of gambling with a rules change.

With historical racing, gamblers put their money into machines and bet on electronic simulations of past horse races with most of the identifying information taken off. The Idaho Legislature approved the concept two years ago but is contemplating new legislation to repeal it based on concerns that they look and act like Vegas-style slot machines and violate the state's constitution, according to published reports.

Huffman said the members of the GOP caucus who signed the letter did not take a position on the issue of historical racing specifically, but agreed that the Racing Commission had overstepped its bounds by trying to “circumvent” the Legislature’s authority to make gambling policy.

“We felt it was inappropriate for the commission to make these decisions and were acting outside the scope of their authority,” Huffman said. “It really didn’t go to solving the issue or making a policy determination about how legislation should proceed on the issue.”

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Politics State government Gambling Joan Huffman Texas Legislature