PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

January 6, 2013

Legislature to decide on Texas gambling Tuesday

Josh Brown
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — Supporters of casino gambling will once again try to propel their agenda through the state legislature when its session begins Jan. 8, and the impact could have huge effects on the local economy.

The argument to legalize casino gambling has been gaining traction in Port Arthur since Pleasure Island announced it will reopen its golf course and country club this Spring after being destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

The Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce recently approved a resolution to support Let Texans Decide, a pro-gambling lobbyist group, in an effort to get the issue on a ballot for general election.

“It’s not necessarily supporting gambling, rather the right of Texans to get it on the ballot for the next state election,” said Chamber President Bill McCoy. “It’s important to Pleasure Island.”

Since casino gambling is prohibited by the state constitution, lawmakers would have to first pass a resolution, then put the issue on a general election ballot for approval. Texas already has a state-run lottery and betting on horse and dog racing.

Terry Doyle, former state senator and current chairman of the Pleasure Island Commission, cited tax revenue and job creation as the main reasons Texas should legalize casino gambling.

“Casinos hire a lot of people, a lot of unskilled people,” Doyle said. “If Texas desperately needs anything, it’s jobs for the unskilled.”

According to a survey from the American Gaming Association, more than 339,000 people were employed in a commercial casino in 2011, earning wages of a combined $12.9 billion.

The most likely places to land casinos if gambling was approved — Galveston, Pleasure Island, Corpus Christi — are far away from large cities, which have a stronger political voice.

“You have huge populations in Dallas County, Bexar County, El Paso County- if it looks like the resolution has support, it would be a bloodlet over who gets a license,” Doyle said. “It would be a ferocious battle.”

Getting even that far would be a victory for casino gambling supporters, however, because social conservatives and Republicans, who hold a majority in the house and senate, are strictly opposed to the issue.

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said in an interview with The News last month that it is highly unlikely casino gambling will be approved during this legislative session.

“I have never supported gambling in Texas,” he said. “I think you could probably get it through the senate, but I don’t think there’s anyway you could get it through the house.”

John Montford, a former state senator now working with Let Texans Decide, had the complete opposite impression. He said casino gambling will pass with “an overwhelming majority” if lawmakers are properly educated on the issue.

“I just can’t for the life of me see why anyone would be against it,” he said. “Why not take it to the people?”

According to Montford, Texas is “hemorrhaging away about $2.5 billion a year” to casinos in Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

“We’re funding a lot of programs in those states vicariously,” he said.

According to the AGA survey, commercial casinos revenues reached $35.64 billion in 2011, a 3 percent increase from the previous year, and almost $8 billion was returned to the respective states as gaming taxes.

There are 22 states that allow casino gambling, including the three bordering Texas.

Montford said this legislative session is the best time to pass a casino gambling referendum, because financial and political influence from opponents, including bordering casinos, will eventually be too much to overcome.

“These out-of-state interests have sunk a lot of money into Texas politics,” he said. “It’s time to let the people decide.”

E-mail: jbrown@panews.com

Twitter: @joshnathanbrown