Casino proponents make case at Capitol

Austin, Texas – Casino gambling in Texas should be done with a bang — with large resorts that attract convention-goers and tourists, proponents told state lawmakers Wednesday.
„Texas is situated in an unbelievable position to do this and do it right,“ said Jack Pratt of Dallas, a former casino developer and chairman of the Texas Gaming Association. „If Texas doesn’t do it right, you should leave it alone.“

A highly anticipated House committee hearing on casino and slot machine bills drew an overflow crowd. Much of the testimony centered on a sweeping plan by Democratic Rep. Jose Menendez of San Antonio, who with several other leading lawmakers proposes bringing resort casinos to the state and allowing casinos at race tracks and on American Indian lands in Texas.

Another bill calls for video slot machines at horse and dog race tracks, without legalizing stand-alone casinos except at Indian reservations. Disagreements between resort casino interests and race track owners about where to locate casinos and how to tax them have stalled legislation so far.

Both sides said Wednesday they are looking for ways to work together.

„I’m terrified that we’re going to leave this legislative session and we’re all going to have zero,“ said Preston Carter, a longtime horse racing advocate.

Horse industry officials say slot machines at tracks would help tracks make money and create purses large enough to draw top horses from around the country. Several horse and dog track officials testified in favor of a race track video slot machines bill by Rep. Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, an Alice Democrat. Resort casino supporters say their plan, incorporating the tracks too, would spur even more economic development.

A flash of Las Vegas showed itself early in the day.

„Not all casinos are created equal,“ said Sheldon Adelson, chairman and chief executive of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., who showed glossy photographs of his company’s properties — the Venetian and the Palazzo in Las Vegas and a casino development in Macau that cost billions of dollars to build. „Destination resort is the way to go.“

Texas is a prime spot to build large casino resorts that offer shows, restaurants and shopping and lure convention business, Adelson told legislators.

He predicted his company and others would be interested in vying for casino licenses in Texas and said construction money would be available despite the economic downturn that is affecting the casino industry nationally.

After appearing before the House Licensing and Administration Committee, Adelson paid a private visit to Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want to expand the „footprint“ of gambling in the state but also has not said he would veto a gambling measure if it lands on his desk.

Gambling interests have pressed for casinos in Texas for several legislative sessions, but they’ve always hit roadblocks in this conservative state. This year may be no different, in part because legislators aren’t desperate for new money sources.

Those who want casinos say Texans are already gambling billions of dollars at out-of-state casinos and that they want to keep that cash in the state.

Opponents, including the Baptist Christian Life Commission, argue that casinos suck money out of local economies and don’t produce the economic benefits they promise.

„The casino industry is making big, untenable promises of revenue to the state,“ said Suzii Paynter, director of the Christian Life Commission. The commission contends casinos profit off of gambling addiction and says that even in Nevada the state only realizes USD 1 billion from gambling taxes.

Don Hoyte, an economic consultant for the Texas Gaming Association, presented research showing that if Texas legalizes resort casinos as provided for in Menendez’s bill the casinos could ultimately generate USD 3.3 billion annually in state and local tax money by 2015. Texas would account for 9 percent of national gambling dollars, he said.

The gaming association proposes putting some of the casino tax money into college scholarships and highway construction.

Rob Kohler, a lobbyist for the Christian Life Commission, disagreed with some pro-casino legislators over whether casinos are magnets for crime.

„It’s a hard thing to quantify,“ Kohler said. „But without a doubt, some bad things happen.“

Members of the Tigua tribe of El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Livingston showed up to ask that they be allowed to reopen their casinos that were closed in 2002 after the state went to federal court to shutter them. The tribes have put forth casino legislation of their own, but they also want to be part of any big casino bill.

„We’re a good people,“ said Carlos Bullock, tribal council chairman for the Alabama-Coushatta in East Texas, which wants casino money for education, health care and employment. „We have a strong religious background.“