Casino Gambling Measures Seen Gaining Ground in Legislature

Republicans are signing onto bills they previously opposed.

WOAI Local News – Monday, March 11, 2013

Several casino gambling measures will come before Texas House committees this week, and supporters say there is a growing sentiment that the voters, and not the Legislature, should  make the final decision on the question of expanding gambling, 1200 WOAI’s Michael Board has learned.

“What everybody, especially Republicans, are becoming more comfortable with it, let’s let the voters decide,” State Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo) told 1200 WOAI news.

Raymond, who is backing several bills to expand gambling in the state, says he has never seen this type of sentiment among Republican lawmakers.

Gambling measures have stalled for years, never getting out of committees, let alone before the people for a vote.  But several factors are credited for changing attitudes toward casinos.

One is the active work of former State Sen. and Texas Tech University System Chancellor John Montford, one of the most respected former lawmakers, and a prominent conservative.  Montford heads Let Texans Decide, a non partisan group which is lobbying lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Another is a continuing drumbeat of reports about the success of gambling in neighboring states.  Oklahoma just last month announced that casinos in the Sooner State raked in $3.48 billion in revenue in 2011, up 7.7% over 2010.  A large percentage of people playing casinos in Oklahoma and in Louisiana are from Texas.

“Every Legislator is convinced that we are losing $3 billion to $4 billion a year to surrounding states,” Raymond said.

The new reports may be breaking down a major argument of casino opponents.  For years they have questioned figures showing Texans spending billions in states like Louisiana and Nevada, and pointing out the sluggish economies of those states, Nevada continues to have the highest unemployment rate and the highest percentage of homes in foreclosure of any state in the USA.

Let Texans Decide says approving casino gambling in Texas would lead to the immediate creation of some 75,000 new jobs, and would mean an $8.5 billion boost to the state’s economy.

They also point out that the Texas pari-mutuel racing industry is fading, because tracks in neighboring states also provide casinos and other gambling along with the ponies.

“I certainly believe there is two thirds support in the House and the Senate to take it to the voters,” Raymond said.  “I haven’t really seen that before.”

Social conservatives continue to oppose expanding the footprint of casinos in Texas, claiming that the ‘hidden cost’ of broken families, problem gambling, and crime would far outweigh the benefits.

Some of the bills currently up for consideration would simply allow existing pari-mutuel tracks to establish ‘no live dealer’ video poker and slot machines.  Some would legalize the devices known as ‘Eight Liners.’  But some bills, like the one sponsored by State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston would allow the establishment of full blown Vegas-style report casinos in San Antonio and other major cities, as well as on Galveston and South Padre Island.  These would be major facilities, with a $400 million minimum investment.  Just the application fee to obtain one of these casino licenses would be $50 million.

The bill would also establish a Texas Gaming Commission to regular the casinos.

All of the bills require that Texans be allowed to vote on the issue.  The major casino bills, like the one sponsored by Ellis, go even further, requiring a general statewide Constitutional Amendment election to allow casinos generally, and then requiring that voters of the city or county where a casino would be located vote on the proposal on the table.

As a Constitutional Amendment, Gov. Perry’s support would not be necessary.

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