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John Montford

Senate to consider expanded gambling

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.

Sen. John Carona

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.

Sen. Carona’s measure is SJR 64. If you’ll pardon the expression, the smart money is on nothing happening, as has always been the case before. The Trib goes into some more detail.

[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.

Gambling interests narrow their focus

This is usually how it goes.

Let Texans Decide, a pro-gambling organization that is fronted by former state Sen. John Montford, was aligned at the beginning of the 2013 legislative session with big casino interests in a call for full-scale casino gambling in Texas, whether at horse and dog tracks or at yet-to-be-built destination resort casinos.

But as the session progressed, the chances of passing a measure for casino gambling appeared to grow slimmer. And now, Montford’s group, which advocated legislation in 2011 to permit slot machines at tracks, has returned to its old way of thinking.

“This was the position we originally took,” Montford said. “I do believe that this is a reasonable approach.”

The goal has always been the same: to get a gambling-related bill through the Legislature and have the matter put in front of the voters of Texas, the former senator said.

[…]

While it is always difficult to gain approval for gambling legislation from the Texas Legislature, some factors at play now could help, Montford said.

For one, there is growing support among Republicans in the House for slot machines at racetracks, he said. Recently, John Kuempel of Seguin and Rep. Ralph Sheffield of Temple signed on to a slot bill by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo. Montford said he was encouraged that more members are willing to allow constituents to vote on a gambling initiative.

Montford is also happy that a slots-at-tracks measure by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has been assigned to the Senate Finance Committee, where more senators could hear the testimony.

See here and here to compare what’s being said now to what was said before. I have my doubts that this was a consensus decision, since the casino interests and the horse racing interests have generally not been on the same page in the past, but whatever. I’ll believe there’s movement when something gets passed out of committee. As it happens, while there are three pieces of legislation relating to expanded gambling – the latest, SJR64 by Sen. John Carona, was filed this week – none have yet been scheduled for committee hearings.

The other players in the game, notably the big Las Vegas casino companies, might be quiet now, but that doesn’t mean they have lost hope in the long run.

Some gambling proponents could see an opportunity if there is a special legislative session, as expected, focusing on financing public schools.

If lawmakers are scrambling in a special session for new money to comply with an expected court order to put more money into education, then casinos are “more optimistic for serious consideration,” said John Pitts, a lobbyist for several large casino interests.

Maybe. A scenario where more revenue is required and there’s no two ways around it is probably a prerequisite for any expansion of gambling to happen. I still think it’s highly unlikely, but I suppose anything is possible. I wouldn’t bet on it, though. The equally pessimistic Burka has more.

One big happy pro-gambling expansion family

If the pro-gambling forces in the state all join hands and agree to work together, will this finally be the year that gambling expansion gets a vote? Maybe.

John Montford, chairman of Let Texans Decide, a coalition of gaming companies, track operators, trade groups and others who want Texas to legalize casinos, has met with groups representing casino and slot machine interests and is optimistic that they could agree on potential legislation that would bring a constitutional amendment on gambling before Texas voters.

“We’re working hard to build coalitions in favor of a referendum,” said Montford, a former state senator from Lubbock and the author of the legislation that created the Texas Lottery. “The members of the Legislature don’t have to be pro- or anti-gaming to support a referendum. We want people to have a fair say so.”

Efforts at such collaboration are not new in the industry, though they haven’t proved successful in bringing a proposed amendment to voters on creating casinos, allowing slot machines or other such gambling measures.

But those interests haven’t always been on the same page. Some previous efforts have come undone when race track and casino proponents battled to get a competitive advantage built into proposals pending in the Legislature.

In recent sessions, conflict between bills that would have allowed slot machines at horse racing tracks and those that would allow resort casinos have been part of the reason no such legislation made progress. Competing lobbyists and dollars sent mixed messages to legislators who may not have been keen to promote gambling in the first place out of fear of alienating anti-gaming voters.

See here for the story so far. Hard to know what to make of this, since Montford appears to be the sole person speaking on behalf of Let Texans Decide. The story notes that Sen. Rodney Ellis’ SJR6, which would allow a vote on various forms of gambling, is what’s being talked about now. It also notes that the horse racing interests are pursuing their own bill, though they may be willing to support SJR6. So yeah, not clear whether this session represents a change of tactics or just more of the same and hoping for a different outcome.

Time once again to talk about expanded gambling

There’s a legislative session coming up, right? That can only mean one thing: A new effort to expand gambling in Texas.

Track and gaming interests say voters should be allowed to decide whether to give Texas a shot at the benefits of $2.5 billion they say is wagered in surrounding states annually by Texans.

“They are taking our money to fund their programs, and I think they frankly have just been smarter than we have. My hat’s off to ’em,” said John Montford, a former state Senate Finance Committee chairman. He carried the legislation that established Texas’ lottery and now is involved in the casino battle.

Critics doubt the figures and call expanded gaming a losing proposition for Texas, saying gaming would take money from the pockets of people who can ill afford it.

Montford has been hired by the partnership of Penn National Gaming and Sam Houston Race Park to push the gambling expansion under the name of Let Texans Decide.

Among supporters listed on the group’s website are Valley Race Park, the Texas Association of Business, the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston Women’s chamber, Houston Hispanic chamber and Houston Northwest.

Remember the name Let Texans Decide, whose Facebook page is here. Whatever arguments or talking points you hear for expanding gambling in Texas will have come from them.

The Legislature has repeatedly turned down the chance to amend the state constitution to expand gambling, which would require a two-thirds vote of lawmakers before going on a state ballot.

The battle doesn’t look to be any easier this time.

State lawmakers who faced a huge revenue shortfall in their last regular session in 2011 now are seeing a recovering economy, and the House and Senate are no less conservative. Several incoming senators are viewed as further right than their predecessors.

“Before this session, there was probably a shot at passing something like that through the Senate. I think with the new members that we have in the Senate, it’s probably less likely than it was before. And I think it is very unlikely that either one of those proposals would get through the House,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, when asked about slots at tracks or casinos. Williams said he has never voted to expand gaming in Texas, adding that revenue figures presented in years past by supporters of the idea appeared unrealistic.

“I don’t have a big, huge moral objection to it, but I’m not sure it’s for the benefit of the state,” Williams said.

Dale Craymer, president of the business-based Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, said, “One of the considerations for casino gambling is the fact that it raises revenue, and that’s a big issue during a session when they are looking for revenue. This is not going to be a session where they are looking for revenue.”

Yes, God forbid we should seek out any new revenue sources any time outside of a severe crisis, not that we do then either. I’m not saying that more gambling is the way we should go to raise more revenue for the state, I’m just saying we’re a million miles from being at a point where we can say that we don’t need any more revenue sources. Between water, transportation, Medicaid, mental health services, education, and a whole host of other needs, there are plenty of issues in need of more funding.

Texans for Public Justice, which tracks money in politics, found that gambling interests donated $1.6 million to Texas political action committees and candidates going into the 2010 elections.

TPJ, in a check of reports available for this year, found top gambling PACs from 2010 donated more than $904,000 this cycle. The total included only reports covering up until eight days before the election, so the total is sure to be higher.

According to Let Texans Decide, the Chickasaws and Choctaws, which have Oklahoma casino operations, have given Texas candidates five times as much as they gave Oklahoma candidates since 2008 — more than $807,000 in Texas compared to nearly $152,000 in Oklahoma. The Chickasaws also have invested in a Grand Prairie track.

There may not be money for the things Texans need, but there’s always money for the campaigns. As always, keep an eye on that as the debate progresses. There’s a scandal lurking out there somewhere.

Hardberger for Governor?

We’re not even a week out from sine die, and the 2010 campaign rumor ‘n speculation mill is in full gear. The most interesting bit in this story is right here:

Democratic consultant Christian Archer suggested that candidates would shortly hunt ways to gauge and raise their appeal. “There’s probably a 30-minute respite for people to go home, say hello to their families again,” Archer said. “And then people will start talking” about campaigns.

The cast of gubernatorial wannabes could widen — extending among Republicans to a longshot, state Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler, who’s been frustrated at legislative inaction on proposals related to illegal immigration. Berman said he intends to declare his candidacy for governor around July 4.

Among Democrats, John Montford, a former state senator, has been mentioned as a gubernatorial prospect, while there’s also talk of White or Sharp shifting sights from the Senate race to governor before candidate filings late this year. Archer said his client, former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger, is similarly weighing a try for governor.

I can’t say Montford excites me much. He last held elected office in 1996, and at least at first glance there doesn’t appear to be all that much difference between him and Tom Schieffer. I could be wrong – I really don’t know much about the guy – but there’s nothing I can see in his track record to suggest he’d be anything but another business-friendly center-right Dem. Not that that’s a sin, but I’d like a little more variety in my primary, if that’s all right.

Hardberger, on the other hand, could be an interesting candidate. He was very popular in San Antonio, and there’s nothing I know of in his record as Mayor there that’s an obvious turnoff. The reaction to this idea I’ve seen from so far from folks in SA has been very positive. If this is for real and not just a standard issue consultant tout job, I’d definitely want to know more.

As for Berman, what can you say? He’s a one-trick pony, and that trick is nasty and hateful. I hope his idiocy gets lots of play in the GOP primary, and that he spends plenty of time making Rick Perry and KBH as uncomfortable and off-message as possible. Thanks to Marc Campos for the link.