Texas casino legislation gaining steam at Capitol - MyFoxAustin.com | KTBC Fox 7 | News, Weather, Sports

Texas casino legislation gaining steam at Capitol

The odds appear to be improving for legislation that would allow you to vote on whether or not to expand gambling in Texas.

A crucial public hearing was held on that Wednesday at the Capitol, and during the hearing an iconic image of Texas became part of the debate.

The majority of those testifying at the Wednesday morning committee meeting support Senator John Carona's gambling resolution. It is an indication his idea is gaining some traction despite the questionable political climate brewing over at the Capitol dome.

"This is the biggest single opportunity for economic development that I believe will come before the legislature within the next 10 to 20 years, we are not going to have a better opportunity than this," said Senator Carona (R) Dallas.

According to the Senator Texans spend more than $3 billion each year gambling out of state. He believes keeping those dollars in state will create more than 70,000 jobs.

The state would tax gambling revenue at 20% unless the operator invested more than $1 billion, and then the rate would be 15%. At least 85% of tax revenue would go to reduce property taxes. The city and county would get 5 % each, and the remaining 5% would be spent to prosecute gambling-related crime and help people with gambling addictions.

If approved by state lawmakers, which requires winning a two thirds vote in both chambers, the gambling resolution would allow for a statewide vote on the issue.

However, Rob Kohler with the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission said voters already have a say when they elect lawmakers to these seats.

"To me it's just important that Texans are not mislead in the sense they don't have a decision making role in this process, they have the ultimate decision making for this process, they vote in the primaries and vote in the general elections," said Kohler

The Vice Chairwoman of the Texas Republican Party, Melinda Fredricks, described Carona's legislation as an attempt by some lawmakers to pass the buck. During her testimony she also read from the state GOP party platform which opposes the expansion of legalized gambling and encourages the repeal of the Texas State Lottery.

The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation issued a statement saying that the proposed limit on the number of casino licenses was anti-competitive and warned against the hidden social and legal costs of gambling.

To build momentum, Senator Carona has built a pro-gambling coalition. It includes representatives from Native American tribes who testified how their economy was wrecked when a court order shut down their casinos several years ago.

The state thoroughbred horse industry is on board. To win that support - about half of the 21 proposed gaming licenses are slated for Texas track operators. The strategy could put casinos into every major metro market, including Austin.

However, advocates for the horse industry say the plan for them is all about survival.

"So we are more than gambling, we're a horse industry, we're an Agra-Industry, we're a family industry," said Val Clark with Texas HORSE.

Most horse breeders have moved out of the state because Texas only offers $20 million in purses a year, while Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma offer $210 million, said Andrea Young, president of Sam Houston Race Park, a horse track in Houston.

"Texas tracks need casino gambling for one reason, in order to compete with tracks in adjacent states," she said.

Some of those at the hearing who voiced opposition were with the Tea Party. Senator Carona challenged their positions.

"To me this ought to be the ultimate model of the type of legislation the Tea Party looks for and supports especially we are not using the money to grow government we're using it for property tax relief, "said Senator Carona.

If the sales pitch fails to stick, the opening for gambling supporters will quickly close this session, but it could return if an Education Funding Special Session is called later this summer.

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