I didn’t really take it seriously when I heard that Sen. John Carona had filed his own gambling expansion legislation, but it seems it’s got some traction.
A proposal from Dallas Republican Sen. John Carona would establish a commission that licenses 21 casinos throughout the state, including three mega-resorts in Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant counties and two smaller locations at Retama Park in San Antonio and Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.
Carona, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce committee, told reporters Monday the proposal would keep the estimated $3 billion Texans are spending at casinos in bordering states inside state coffers while creating more than 75,000 jobs. The committee, which will consider the measure Wednesday, is likely to pass the proposal on to the full Senate, he said.
“No one can really determine yet what chance of ultimate passage it has this session,” Carona said in an interview in his Capitol office, noting his vote tally indicates both chambers are a few votes shy of approval. “It is a difficult bill because of the presumed political consequences of it, but the polls show there is overwhelming public support.”
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has supported similar measures in the past, said the chances of gambling passing the Legislature this session are “slim-to-none.”
However, Pitts said the final decision on the state’s school finance trial could provide a boost for gambling in Texas. If the current ruling – that the state’s public education funding is inadequate and unconstitutional – stands, lawmakers will be searching for a new source of revenue that does not create a new tax, he said.
Under Carona’s proposal, three casinos would be licensed in coastal counties, 12 would be reserved for racetracks and three would be designated for federally recognized Native American tribes.
The majority of revenue generated – 85 percent – would be dedicated to the Property Tax Relief Fund, which supports local programs, such as public education and emergency services. Remaining revenue would belong to city and county governments and fund programs to counter gambling problems. The constitutional amendment must gain two-thirds support of the House and Senate before moving on to voters in a statewide referendum.
[Carona has] been working on casino legislation for the last few sessions, but his plan this year is much more comprehensive. In the past, gaming bills have either had the support of casinos or race tracks. But not both.
That split support had doomed the efforts. This time, Carona said, both groups are on board.
“Let me make clear that this legislation has very broad support,” he said. “While not all stakeholder concerns are resolved in this bill, we have come a long way. And it is my hope that we’ll continue to work together to bring forward a bill that is best for Texas.”
The senator said his legislation is still fluid — many changes could be made. So for now, there’s no price tag on how much money casino gambling would generate. But billions are expected from the three giant destination resort casinos and 18 other facilities that would be authorized under his resolution.
But hey, if you want to pass something in the Legislature, you need to do one of two things: Show what problem the legislation would fix or, as casino supporters did this week, show an enemy that would be defeated by this bill. And according to casino supporters, we have met the enemy — and it is Oklahoma.
“In particular, we’re hemorrhaging money to Oklahoma,” said John Montford of Let Texans Decide. “Not only do they recruit our best high school football players. They also snooker us each day by building their gaming empire on the backs of Texans.”
Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond was even less diplomatic when explaining what he sees as the benefits of casinos in Texas.
“Texans will no longer have to travel to third-world countries in order to game,” Hammond joked. “It’s unfair and unconscionable that we are making these people travel to these third-world counties that surround Texas.”
The state’s hatred of Oklahoma aside, there are still several roadblocks to casinos in Texas. Carona’s resolution needs a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate before it heads to the ballot as a constitutional amendment this November.
And on the Senate side, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has a history of threatening a filibuster over gaming legislation. As debates have neared in the past, she has even put tennis shoes on her desk on the Senate floor to let people know she’s ready to go if needed.
And, of course, if a resolution passes the House and Senate, then there’s the final statewide vote — a vote that will certainly include groups opposing casinos on moral grounds along with some backed by those neighboring states’ casinos that don’t want to lose business.
The 100-vote threshhold in the House is pretty daunting. Speaker Joe Straus will not be an ally, since he stays away from gambling bills to avoid talk about conflicts of interest, and there’s likely to be enough social conservative opposition to make it at best a close call. Still, even getting a bill out of committee in the Senate is farther than the gambling expansion forces have gone in the past. If Carona’s bill can actually make it to the floor in both chambers, who knows? Stranger things have happened.