Future of casino gambling in Texas faces hard odds this session

Hindered by ethical and religious objections to gambling and a healthy state bank account that gives little impetus to look for additional revenue streams, Senate Joint Resolution 64, which would open Texas to Vegas-style casinos and revitalize the state's horse racing industry, has stalled in a Senate committee and is likely dead for the session.

State Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, whose district includes Sam Houston Race Park, said he would consider supporting the right kind of legislation if it ever does make it to the House.

"We need to see how the bill comes out, what our options are," he said, adding that he wants to make sure it offers equal opportunities to all businesses. "I'm not about picking winners and losers, but if the bill is going to open up to where any business can apply for a casino, then I'd have to seriously look at it."

Some lawmakers say the time is drawing near for voters to decide whether to start keeping at home some of the estimated $2.5 billion Texans spend on gambling every year in neighboring states.

"I know the day is coming this will pass," said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, author of SJR 64. "This is not going to be an issue that Texas never addresses. We're coming closer and closer with each year that passes."

On the table for now is a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow a limited number of full resort casinos in the state's most populous areas and along the coast.

It would also grant full casino licenses at the state's three race parks—Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Retama Park near San Antonio and Sam Houston Race Park in Houston—and would allow smaller race tracks to apply for licenses to operate casinos or slot machines.

In mid-April, a hearing on SJR 64 drew executives from Sam Houston Race Park, who said the bill would revitalize the horse and dog tracks in Texas, which are now losing big purses and big players to tracks in surrounding states.

"Texans are relegated to the minor leagues while Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico are playing in the majors," said Andrea Young, president of the Sam Houston Race Park.

Supporters say the bill would allow for the creation of tens of thousands of jobs at the resort casinos alone and would bring in billions of dollars to state coffers every year.

Those proceeds would be taxed at 15 percent to 20 percent, with the money going to property tax relief, local governments, gambling addiction programs, education and similar benefits.

"For too long, Texas has propped up neighboring economies at the expense of our own, exporting jobs, revenue and investment as one of only 10 states that prohibits casino-style gaming," said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business. "With one simple vote of the people, we could create 74,000 jobs, increase salaries and wages by $3.4 billion, and generate $11.8 billion in annual economic activity once a limited number of casinos are completed."

The proposal is also being counted on to raise the purse money at horse tracks, reviving an industry that once contributed $5.5 billion to the Texas economy annually and supported 36,000 jobs.

The industry has become anemic as neighboring states, such as Oklahoma and Louisiana, have claimed the gaming proceeds that allow them to run high-stakes races.

"Additional gaming options will level the playing field and enable us to offer the highest purses in the country," Young said.



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