Bill would permit up to 12 casinos in Texas

Up to a dozen full-fledged casinos in Texas’ big cities and on the islands along the Gulf Coast could be in operation within three years under a sweeping proposal filed Tuesday before the legislative session, which opens in January.

Senate Joint Resolution 8 by Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis is nearly identical to a measure introduced two years ago that went nowhere, despite its promise to generate as much as USD 2 billion a year for the state treasury. Even though the state appears to be flush with cash to meet the demands for state services, a key backer of the measure said lawmakers would be wise to act soon or risk losing the opportunity to reap that revenue.

„I’m hearing a lot of people saying, ’This isn’t the time [for casinos] because we don’t need the money as bad,’“ said Bill Stinson, a lobbyist representing the gambling industry. „That might be true, but unless we get everything in place real soon, we’ll be out of luck until 2012 or later.“

Ellis’ bill would replace the Texas Lottery Commission and the Texas Racing Commission with the Texas Gaming Commission, which would oversee all state-regulated gambling and could grant up to 12 licenses for casino operations. To become law, the measure must be passed by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature and then be put before the voters in November 2007 as a constitutional amendment.

Before a casino could be built, voters in the host county would have to approve it. Once licensing and construction is factored in, it would likely be 2009 before casinos would be operating in Texas, Stinson said.

Anti-gambling forces, who have managed to blunt countless casino initiatives and other proposed games of chance offered up by lawmakers since 2003, say they remain prepared to wage the battle anew when the 140-day session opens in about eight weeks. „We were able to beat it back because we’ve always had a solid core of lawmakers who understood that this is not the sort of economic development we need in the state of Texas,“ said Suzii Paynter, who heads the anti-gambling Christian Life Commission, an arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

During the recent election campaign, in which gambling simmered as a sleeper issue in the governor’s race, Paynter said she and her organization were expecting a renewed push for casinos in 2007. „There are so many lobbyists and so much money from gambling interests floating around Austin, I don’t see how there cannot be a major effort to pass something,“ Paynter said.

The measure Ellis offered in 2005, which was backed by state Rep. Charlie Geren, died in a legislative committee. An aide said Geren has not decided whether to get behind casino legislation in the upcoming session.

Stinson said that if legislators pass casino legislation, voters would likely follow suit. „All of our polling shows that a minimum of 51 percent of the people and a maximum of more than 60 percent of the people want this,“ Stinson said.