Senators launch bid for Texas casinos

Austin – Big resorts with full casinos, shops and restaurants could be built in up to a dozen Texas cities under legislation proposed today by two high-profile senators and backed by major gambling interests.

Voters ultimately would have the say on the proposed constitutional amendment legalizing casino gambling.

A main selling point of the plan, the legislators contend, is a provision that would dedicate USD 1 billion per year to a fund to pay for eligible Texans to attend a community college or public university.

Sen. John Carona, a Dallas Republican, and Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, sponsors of the legislation, both said they aren’t gamblers themselves. But they said casinos in Texas would slow the flow of gambling money leaving the state. They also said „destination resort casinos“ will attract tourism money for related activities, like high-end entertainment.

„Texans are already voting with their feet and going out of state,“ Ellis said. „It’s time for Texas to reap the economic benefits and use that revenue to help Texas students go to college.“

The Ellis-Carona proposal would provide USD 1 billion per year for a trust fund to pay for college tuition covering about 240,000 students once the program is fully running. Details on who would qualify would be worked out by state officials, but roughly it would cover scholarships for the students who had a combined SAT score of 1,000 or above, said economist Ray Perryman, who conducted studies for the proposal.

Perryman said casino gambling would create up to 400,000 new jobs and generate USD 3 billion to USD 4.5 billion in state and local revenue.

Proponents say Texans already spend about USD 10 billion per year gambling, some of it in other states and some of it illegally in Texas through eight-liners and on the Internet.

The proposed constitutional amendment, if approved by Texas voters, would allow for 12 casino gambling sites – seven in urban areas, two along the Gulf coast and three on Indian reservations. It also would legalize video slot machines at horse and dog race tracks.

Opponents predict the casino legislation will go the same place similar bills have gone before – nowhere.

„They just warm this baby up and roll it out every session,“ said Suzii Paynter, director of the Baptist lobby’s Christian Life Commission. „Why would we go for such a bad deal?“

Paynter said the state would get a far lower return on casino gambling than it does on the state lottery and that, despite talk of tourism, casinos depend heavily on addicted gamblers and a large percentage of gamblers who come from within a 50-mile radius.

There’s a stronger public relations effort associated with this gambling proposal and a new promise of college scholarships, said Paynter, but she expects there will be the same firm opposition in the Legislature seen in recent sessions.

„Texas doesn’t need this. We have great economic development in our state, and we bring businesses to our state that are built on a family friendly business model,“ she said.

Ellis and Carona, along with the powerful Texas Gaming Association that backs their plan, said this is an opportunity to enhance Texas tourism and boost the state and local economies.

If the constitutional amendment is approved by statewide voters, local voters would also have to approve any casino project.

The key to success of casino gambling in Texas is doing it in a comprehensive fashion, said Jack Pratt of Dallas, a former hotel and casino developer who chairs the Texas Gaming Association.

„There’s only one way to develop this business, and that is with large destination resorts,“ Pratt said. Those casinos would pull business away from neighboring states‘ casinos, he said.

Other gambling bills are also pending at the Capitol.

Legislation by Rep. Ismael „Kino“ Flores, a Palmview Democrat, would allow video slots at Texas race tracks and on Indian reservations.

Ellis and Carona said they would be working closely with Flores. They said they would oppose a gambling measure that allows only video slot machines at tracks without establishing full resort casinos.

Today, Rep. Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, filed legislation seeking to regulate poker in Texas. It would allow up to four live or electronic poker tables at establishments meeting certain requirements and would allow charitable poker.