State senator says Texas casino bill has chance of passing

Posted Monday, Apr. 08, 2013 – By Dave Montgomery

AUSTIN — The chief architect of legislation to expand gambling in Texas said Monday that proponents are “inching closer” to winning approval of a proposed constitutional amendment that would send the issue to the voters after years of debate.

But Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, acknowledged it remains uncertain whether they can get the job done before the current legislative session ends next month.

“I would tell you we’re very, very close,” Carona said. “And I would suggest that with a little push at the appropriate time from the various leaders we have throughout the Legislature, this bill can in fact become law.”

“I can’t tell you whether or not it’ll be this session or not,” he added, “but I can tell you with certainty … we are inching closer and closer to that day.”

Carona, flanked by other proponents at a capitol press conference, announced there will be a hearing Wednesday on a proposed constitutional amendment that could pave the way for Las Vegas-type destination casinos in three urban counties, including Tarrant, as well as similar casinos at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie and the state’s two other Class One Race tracks.

It also would permit slot machines at other approved horse and dog race tracks.

The hearing will constitute the session’s first showdown between those battling to bring expanded gambling to Texas and those working to stop it. Texas has racetracks and a statewide lottery but efforts to allow casinos in the Lone Star Sate have foundered in previous sessions.

Rob Kohler, consultant for the Christian Life Commission for Texas Baptists, one of the leading opponents of the expanded gambling, said the outlook is no different this session.

“Do I think this bill will pass? I don’t,” said Kohler. “We feel we have the numbers. More people will vote against it than vote for it.”

The objective for pro-gambling forces is mustering a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature to send the issue directly to the voters as a proposed constitutional amendment.

Proponents say rank-and-file Texans should be empowered to decide whether or not to expand gambling. The strategy also pre-empts the state’s best-known opponent of expanded gambling – Gov. Rick Perry – because the governor cannot veto amendments that are passed by the Legislature and sent to the voters to decide.

“One the things about this, it’s a constitutional amendment so the governor does not have any veto over this resolution, and, of course that’s not by accident,” said Carona.

Perry spokesman Rich Parson reiterated the governor’s long-held position Monday: “He’s opposed to expanding the footprint of gambling in Texas.”

Carona’s proposal would permit showcase casino resorts in Tarrant, Dallas and Bexar counties, although the proposal may be amended to include Harris County. The measure would also permit barrier island casinos in Galveston, Corpus Christi and South Padre Island, three more for the class one race tracks and slots or casino licenses for lower-tier racetracks.

Casinos would also be authorized for the state’s three federally licensed Indian tribes in Livingston, El Paso and Eagle Pass.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston,. is also proposing a constitutional amendment permitting up to eight destination resort casinos as well as horse-and-dog-racing slots and gaming facilities on Indian reservations. But only Carona’s bill is scheduled to be the focus of Wednesday’s hearing.

Jack Pratt Sr., chairman of the Texas Gaming Association, described the destination casinos proposed in Carona’s bill as “iconic” luxury resorts that would cost between $2 billion to $3 billion to build.

Only four major U.S. companies – Las Vegas Sands, Winn Resorts, MGM and Harrah’s – have the financial firepower to construct the top of the line casinos, but a number of smaller companies are prepared to spend between $100 million to $300 million for other casinos envisioned in Carona’s bill, Pratt said.

“We’ll have plenty of people. This will be the largest state that’s ever had this type of offering for many, many years,” Pratt said. “So it’ll be very competitively bid.”

The bill also creates the Texas Gaming Commission, which would oversee the bidding and awarding of the licenses.

Letting Texans decide

At Monday’s press conference, Carona and other proponents said that expanding gambling in Texas would enable the state to wrest back $3 billion in revenue that goes to surrounding states that permit gambling. Thirty-nine states allow some form of casino gambling, amassing revenue of nearly $36 million.

WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma, just across the Red River from Texas, draws millions of dollars from Texas gamblers.

“We’re hemorrhaging money to Oklahoma,” said former State Sen. John Montford , who heads an organization called Let Texans Decide. “We feel like the people of Texas are smart enough, educated enough and certainly savvy about what’s going on that they ought to be able to decide this issue for themselves.”

Jim Wyatt, president of the Texas Association of African-American Chambers of Commerce, acknowledged that he has reservations about gambling but added: “We recognize that when we travel to Louisiana or Oklahoma, we see church vans in the parking lot.”

Carona’s bill would dedicate 85 percent of the revenue to the state’s property tax relief fund.

Five percent would go the city and county governments, and the remainder would be used to prosecute gambling related offenses or to fund a treatment program for compulsive gamblers.

Carona’s bill also reduced the number of proposed casinos compared to previous proposals.

“We have a very limited number of facilities on a statewide basis so as not to affect the quality of our neighborhoods,” he said.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief, 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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