VLT Bill Stalls As Texas Racetracks Make Changes

by Raymond Whelan
As the Texas legislature prepares to end its biennial regular session June 2, it appears approval for video lottery terminals at racetracks would have to wait.

Texas Sen. Ken Armbrister filed a bill in March to permit the Texas Racing Commission to supervise the operation of VLTs at the 10 licensed horse and Greyhound tracks in the state. The Texas Horsemen's Partnership, the Texas Agri-Industry Council, the Texas Thoroughbred Association, and other groups supported the bill.

While legislative leaders discussed how to balance the state budget with a projected $9.9-billion deficit, VLT proponents also claimed the machines would make it possible for Texas to collect more revenue without raising taxes. Lawmakers recently settled on a plan to erase the budget shortfall, mainly by eliminating jobs and slashing services.

To date, the Armbrister bill has not received a hearing, nor have similar gaming proposals from other legislators, including Rep. Ron Wilson, who supports casino gambling and Texas joining multi-state lotteries.

"No legislation has moved forward," said David Hooper, executive director of the TTA. "I'm sure TTA will continue to support (VLTs), and I haven't heard dissenting voices from any other group."

Many political observers expect Gov. Rick Perry to order lawmakers to go into a special session this year to debate public school finances. The legislature may vote on VLTs or other types of alternative gaming then, or perhaps during its next regular session in 2005.

Meanwhile, Lone Star Park announced it would reduce purses for the current meet by nearly 9%. Track officials have indicated they would lower total prize money for six stakes in June and July by 22% from $625,000 to $485,000.

The racetrack owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. said a "tough economy and slower than usual business levels" made the adjustments necessary.

During its May meeting, the racing commission approved a request from Retama Park to drop four days its schedule and close out its 2003 Thoroughbred meet Oct. 19. The original plan called for 51 days, and it would have allowed Retama to hold live racing Oct. 22-25, the week of the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in California.

Bryan Brown, chief executive officer at Retama, said the change was necessary to ensure the track could distribute about $98,000 in purses a day during the meet that begins Aug 1. If the original schedule stayed intact, Brown said, the track would pay roughly $92,000 a day.

"Ideally, we would love to be racing that whole (Breeders' Cup) week, but it just doesn't make sense for us or for the horsemen," Brown said.