Politics & Government

Texas lawmaker wants legal ruling on slot-machine like devices

A controversial proposal to allow “historical racing” — the replaying of already-run races on slot machine-like devices — in racetracks statewide may have hit a stumbling block this week.

State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, sent a letter to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott this week asking him to review whether the Texas Racing Commission has the authority to allow these machines in Texas horse and dog race tracks.

“When agencies jump out and do things, often, they think no one is really watching,” said Flynn, a member of the Texas Conservative Coalition. “So they go forward with it. But when they find out that people have questions, maybe they do slow down.

“We felt that with issues out there, the best thing to do would be to ask the attorney general to give us an opinion,” he said. “If it’s within their authority, then so be it.”

Public comment on the proposal that could impact racetracks such as Lone Star Park, a horse track in Grand Prairie, is being accepted until Sunday and the issue could come before the commission for review as soon as Aug. 12.

Flynn said he realizes that attorney general decisions rarely move quickly and he hopes to have a ruling by the time the legislature gets back to work in January.

“We certainly respect Rep. Flynn’s beliefs and we look forward to any opinion the attorney general may have to offer,” said Robert Elrod, public information officer for the commission. “For now, we will keep evaluating the industry’s proposed rules and we will continue to accept public comment through [Sunday].”

Supporters say this form of instant racing is needed to help struggling Texas racetracks compete with out-of-state tracks that boast casinos, bigger crowds and bigger purses. Detractors say the machines look and act much like slot machines, essentially bringing a form of casino-style gambling to Texas.

This comes just months after a proposal to let Texas bingo halls use electronic devices similar to slot machines drew so much last-minute attention that the Texas Lottery Commission delayed a decision on the issue until “a later date.”

Tracks seek help

For years, gambling advocates have unsuccessfully asked state lawmakers to let them add slot machines or casino gambling at racetracks statewide, something they said is needed to keep Texas competitive with other states that offer the same games of chance.

In May, the commission received a petition from a number of people who race and breed horses in Texas, asking for rule changes to allow historical race wagering, or instant racing.

The games are also known as instant racing machines and have the look and feel of video lottery terminals — a variation of slot machines — which would be displayed on machines similar in size and appearance to slot machines and would randomly replay races that have already been held. But unlike slots in traditional casinos, the payoffs of racing machines is tied to historical race results. No information such as horse names, dates and tracks is included that could help players identify the winners in advance.

Lawmakers in some states have bought into the argument that allowing racing machines is an extension of pari-mutuel wagering — not an expansion of casino gambling.

The horse racing industry in Kentucky reports that it’s been a big money-maker for them, with more than $30 million being wagered on instant racing in May alone at just two tracks.

Countless members of the horse racing industry have written in supporting the proposal in Texas.

“Historical racing will save the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of Texans and small businesses across the state, such as veterinarians, farriers, feed suppliers, farmers and many more,” wrote Nancy and Robert Morgan of Weatherford. “The Texas horse industry is relying on your belief that ours is an industry worth preserving.”

But opponents say it’s ridiculous to argue that historical racing would not be an expansion of casino-style gambling in Texas. They say that if it looks and plays like a slot machine, it’s effectively a slot machine regardless of whether a pari-mutuel system determines the payoff.

“The proposed rules would dramatically and illegally expand gambling in the state of Texas by authorizing slot machine gaming at state-licensed horse and greyhound tracks,” according to a letter sent this week to the commission by the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas.

Commission officials say they have looked into the issue and a rule change to allow instant gaming isn’t an expansion of gambling.

“At the end of the day, the Racing Commission is the state expert on racing and pari-mutuel wagering, and after looking at the issue for several months, they think these rules are within their authority,” said Phillip Oldham, an attorney for Sam Houston Race Park. “Texas needs to embrace this technological advancement in wagering to remain competitive.”

Legal questions

Flynn’s letter states that he believes the machines “look and play like slot machines.”

So he asked Abbott’s office to rule on whether:

• The Racing Commission has the authority to allow wagering on events that are not live;

• Whether historical racing is allowed under pari-mutuel wagering guidelines in Texas;

• If historical racing machines would violate state lottery laws;

• Whether these machines are considered gambling devices, which would make them illegal in Texas.