Tracks Included in Texas Gaming Bill

Texas racetracks are included in legislation that would authorize casino gambling.

Some Texas lawmakers are trying again to establish Las Vegas-style casinos in the state, and they say now is the time to do it because the state needs the money. Racetracks would be included, according to legislation unveiled Feb. 24.

Sens. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, and John Carona, a Dallas Republican, said Texans are gambling, but they’re going to out-of-state casinos to do it. They said the state should get a share of that action through tax revenue and jobs.

“Texans are already gaming,” Ellis said. “They’re going to continue to do so. I say let’s regulate it and let’s tax it and let’s use the money to pay for public schools and highways and other needy programs in the great state of Texas.”

Ellis noted the state has a lottery and pari-mutuel wagering at horse and dog tracks. He said Texans gamble via the Internet and on “eight-liner” machines.

The proposal calls for up to 12 “destination resort” casinos — major real-estate developments that would include retail and other entertainment, Carona said. At least one casino could open in Galveston, which is struggling to revive its economy after Hurricane Ike.

The measure also would allow slot machines at existing horse and dog tracks, and casino gambling on Texas Indian reservations.

The two senators pushed a similar bill last time, but it failed. Baptists and social conservatives who oppose gambling are vowing to fight the proposal again. And some out-of-state casino interests aren’t excited about seeing gambling operations in Texas.

There’s also a rift developing between casinos and racing interests. Though House Speaker Joe Straus, whose family has interests in horse racing, has said he’ll stay out of gambling legislation, two of his close allies — House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, and Rep. Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat — are backing the bill.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry has said he doesn’t want to expand the “footprint” of gambling in the state, but he has stopped short of saying he would veto any gambling legislation. The governor can allow legislation to become law without his signature, and proposed constitutional amendments go straight to Texas voters, not the governor’s desk.

Casino proponents claim the facilities would produce $3 billion to $4.5 billion per year in state and local tax money, with $1 billion of that constitutionally dedicated to paying for college tuition and $1 billion for highway construction. They contend the casinos would directly create as many as 118,000 new jobs and thousands more supporting jobs, and bring $14 billion to $19 billion in economic activity from tourism each year.

Tommy Azopardi, executive director for Texans for Economic Development, which favors allowing slot machines at racetracks and contends they would generate about $1 billion per year for the state, said it doesn’t oppose legalization of casinos as long as racetracks get “full parity.”

“Anything less will cause more harm to a horse industry that is already at a competitive disadvantage to our surrounding states,” Azopardi said in a prepared statement.

He said the casino legislation would create a disparate tax rate between casinos and tracks, and would not allow the tracks to have the same games as casinos.