Gaming interests back measure for expansion

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- Casino owners, racetrack boosters and local leaders lined up Wednesday to support the latest effort to expand gambling in Texas and to bash surrounding states for luring away billions of dollars that could be spent in Texas.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, opened a standing-room-only hearing with a video journey to Thackerville, Okla., population 404 and so close to the Red River, Carona said, "you could almost hit it with a poker chip."

Thackerville is home to WinStar World Casino, the self-proclaimed second-largest casino in the world and a magnet for Texas gamblers.

So it went throughout the two-hour hearing as witness after witness lamented the loss of billions of gambling dollars to Oklahoma and other nearby states while rallying behind Carona's gaming legislation. Only a handful of witnesses testified against the proposed constitutional amendment.

His measure would allow casino resorts in Tarrant, Dallas and Bexar counties. It would also permit casinos and slot machines at Texas racetracks, including Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, as part of a broad-based effort to revitalize the state's foundering horse-racing industry.

Grand Prairie Mayor Charles England testified that WinStar and other out-of-state gambling attractions have had a withering effect on Lone Star Park, prompting horses, riders and trainers to "follow the money" to pursue bigger purses and crowds.

"I'll tell you folks, it's struggling right now because we're just not able to attract" the larger purses, the longtime mayor said. "It's really had a negative effect on Grand Prairie.

"We know billions of dollars are going out of state to our neighbors. That doesn't make very good business sense."

Andrea Young, president of Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, said the proposal would give tracks in Texas "the ability to compete with tracks in surrounding states."

"Our tracks have gone downhill while tracks in surrounding states have prospered," she said.

Purses offered in Texas in 2012 totaled $23.8 million compared with $210 million in Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, according to Texas horse industry data. The number of jobs in the industry -- including owners, trainers, jockeys and workers -- has fallen 59 percent since 2002, from 15,466 to 6,404.

Carona's amendment would send the issue directly to the voters in a strategy that would effectively pre-empt a possible veto by Gov. Rick Perry, who opposes expanded gambling. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature, but unlike bills, they do not go to the governor for a signature or a veto.

Melinda Fredricks, vice chairwoman of the Texas Republican Party, called that approach a "veiled attempt to pass the buck."

Fredricks read a summary of the state GOP platform, which opposes the expansion of gambling and supports the repeal of the Texas lottery.

Carona, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, said that Republican conventions are typically dominated by "the most conservative within our party."

Fredricks said that the platform was approved by more than 9,000 "grassroots Texans."

"Why should we consider emulating underperforming states," Fredricks said.

Rob Kohler, consultant for the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, also spoke against the bill.

Witnesses representing veterans and nonprofit organizations voiced concern that the measure does not address bingo, but Carona promised to work with them to include a bingo provision.

Carona asserted that gambling supporters are closer to winning after years of defeat but acknowledged that it may not be in this session of the Legislature.

He cited polls showing that more than 80 percent of Texas voters believe "they ought to have a say at the ballot box."

Andrew Abboud, senior vice president of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and Steven T. Snyder, senior vice president of Penn National Gaming, outlined their companies' operations and declared an interest in expanding to Texas.

Penn National operates gambling facilities throughout the United States and Canada. Las Vegas Sands, headed by resort magnate Sheldon Adelson, operates luxury casinos in the United States as well in Macau, one of the world's hottest gaming destinations.

"Texas is one of the last good opportunities left in the world," Abboud said. "It should be done right."

Dave Montgomery is the

Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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