Gambling supporters might be out of luck this legislative session

Posted Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- The latest push to expand gambling in Texas and bring a casino to Tarrant County appears headed toward defeat in the Legislature as most proponents concede that they are running out of time going into the final month of the session.

Supporters of plans to permit Las Vegas-style casinos and slots at racetracks say they are holding out hope but acknowledge stiff resistance in both chambers of the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Gambling advocates are already setting their sights on a possible special session in 2014 when lawmakers may be forced back to work to deal with a court-ordered restructuring of the school finance system.

"Certainly, the timer's running down for this session," said Russ Keene, spokesman for the Texas Gaming Association. "But we're very committed to the vision of destination resort casinos for the job creation and new tax revenue and new entertainment source for Texans."

Former state Sen. John Montford, chairman of Let Texans Decide, a coalition calling for a statewide election to present the issue to voters, said, "I think it's going to be an uphill battle."

Montford said an expansion of gambling has strong support among voters but conceded that "it hasn't been easy" building a case in the Legislature.

"The biggest trouble spot has been the cat-mouse game," Montford said.

"The House says they're not going to do anything until the Senate does something. And the Senate says if the House isn't going to do anything, we're not going to do anything.

"In the meantime, the people of Texas are being denied the right to vote on a very important matter. So that's been frustrating as well."

The biggest push this year has centered on a proposed constitutional amendment by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, that would permit lavish destination casinos in the state's largest counties, including Tarrant, as well as on the Gulf Coast.

Luxury casinos would also be permitted at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie and the state's two other Class A horse-racing tracks.

Carona's gambling package, forged as a compromise between casino and racing interests, would also permit gambling at Indian reservations and would authorize video lottery games -- slot machines -- at all 13 horse and greyhound tracks in Texas.

Another proposed constitutional amendment by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would permit gambling on Indian reservations.

Carona, who chairs the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, held a hearing on his proposal in mid-April but declined to bring it up for a scheduled vote in his committee. He told the Austin American-Statesman at the time that the chances for passing casino gambling appear "very slim," adding that the likelihood "becomes less and less" with each passing week.

Keeping hope alive

But committee Director Steven Polunsky said Friday that Carona is "continuing to work with stakeholders" and is not giving up hope.

"This may be one of those multisession bills," Polunsky said, "but it's not over for this session. We're a month away from the end.

"It's not dead," he said. "Whoever speaks that needs to put that hearse in reverse. It is working its way toward the finish line."

Polunsky said Carona will bring the proposal up for a committee vote "at the appropriate time."

"It has its supporters," Polunsky said. "If we're able to demonstrate its strengths, then the bill could pass."

Gambling advocates argue that Texans are pouring more than $3 billion into casinos and slots in surrounding states, a revenue stream that they say should be kept in Texas to boost tax revenue and improve services.

Approving the gambling measures in Carona's proposed constitutional amendment could generate billions in economic benefits and create more than 75,000 jobs, according to Let Texans Decide.

"We've been watching that bill, and although I haven't taken a hard stance either way, I do understand the economic arguments behind this proposal," Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a statement to the Star-Telegram on Friday.

"We certainly want to keep as many jobs and as much business as possible here in Texas."

Carona has said that, if the push for expanded gambling falters this session, proponents could have another chance in a special session that may be needed next year if the Texas Supreme Court orders the state to revamp its school finance system, which an Austin district court has deemed unconstitutional.

Some proponents believe they may have an improved chance during a special session when lawmakers would be looking for new revenue to improve public schools.

Texans authorized pari-mutuel wagering at racetracks in 1987 and created the state lottery in the early 1990s.

But efforts to allow casinos and racetrack slot machines have repeatedly failed amid strong opposition from religious and conservative groups.

"I believe it's one of those issues that was dead on arrival at the start of the session," said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who has no position on the issue. "I believed it then and I believe it now."

Burnam added: "That's probably the position of over a third of my colleagues."

Let voters decide

Last week, House members voted 82-64 to kill the Texas Lottery Commission before reversing course after warnings that the action would endanger more than $2 billion in lottery-generated revenue for public schools.

Some members and outsiders interpreted the initial action as a possible test vote on expanded gambling.

But others said it merely reflected lawmakers' dissatisfaction with the lottery and what critics describe as a "regressive tax" on the poor.

Rob Kohler of the Christian Life Commission of Texas Baptists, a leading opponent of gambling legislation, said that neither the House nor the Senate can produce enough votes to advance this year's measures.

Montford said: "It's a tough sell. We're working diligently trying to get a vote. I can't imagine why any member would be afraid to let the people of Texas decide this issue. That's the frustrating part. The people want to vote on this thing."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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