No candidate opposes gamblingOctober 15, 2006
By JOHN MORITZ, STAR-TELEGRAM AUSTIN BUREAU
AUSTIN - In the 2006 governor's race, proponents of legalizing more gambling opportunities feel like they've been dealt a pretty strong hand.
Republican incumbent Rick Perry has previously proposed allowing Texas' racetracks and Indian reservations to operate Las Vegas-style slot machines. So has Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who's running as an independent. Democrat Chris Bell says he's "open" to casinos because the tax revenue could help pay for education and social services.
And Kinky Friedman, the entertainer and novelist who's also running as independent, makes no bones about his enthusiasm for legalized casinos. He boasts that on his "fact-finding missions to Las Vegas," he often meets more Texans than he would at a suburban shopping center.
"We invented Texas Hold 'em, and we can't even play it here," he has said repeatedly on the campaign trail. The tax revenue, he said, would be plowed into public education. He calls it "Slots for Tots" on his Web site.
Bill Stinson, a lobbyist for pro-casino group Let the Voters Decide, said the lack of a vocal gambling opponent on the statewide ballot is a good omen.
"I think we've got a very good shot at getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot so the voters can decide what gaming opportunities they'd be willing to support," said Stinson, whose clients also include the Fort Worth Stockyards. "Everyone on the statewide ballot [in the governor's race] has indicated they'd be open to it."
So far, gambling has been a fairly low-key issue in the race, which also includes Libertarian James Werner on the Nov. 7 ballot. But that does not mean those with gambling interests have remained mum. Figures compiled by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice show that donors with at least some ties to the gaming industry have donated nearly $2.5 million to the gubernatorial candidates since 2003.
Perry has received the most, $1.3 million, although he has been the least vocal on the issue. Strayhorn has received $1.1 million and Bell $5,500. Friedman, despite his unabashed backing of casinos, has received nothing from the industry.
Many donors have given to both Perry and Strayhorn. And some of Strayhorn's money was donated before she became an active candidate and before she cut her ties with the GOP.
Reggie Bashur, a Republican lobbyist who represents the Texas Horsemen's Partnership, which wants video slot machines at racetracks, said it not unusual that the gaming industry has not settled on one candidate. Some donors might prefer a limited expansion of gambling; others might be more ambitious, he said.
"Our organization hasn't taken a formal position in the governor's race," Bashur said.
Suzii Paynter, who heads the anti-gambling Christian Life Commission, an arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said she expects a big push by the casino lobby in next year's legislative session, regardless of who is elected governor.
"There are so many lobbyists and is so much money from gambling interests floating around Austin, I don't see how there cannot be a major effort to pass something," Paynter said.
But she quickly added that the gambling lobby was well-funded in 2003 when proponents touted slot machines and casinos as a way to bridge a budget gap approaching $10 billion. The same was true in 2005 and again this year when state leaders were grappling with ways to help pay for a school finance overhaul.
"We were able to beat it back because we've always had a solid core of lawmakers who understood that this is not the sort of economic development we need in the state of Texas," Paynter said.
But Stinson, of Let the Voters Decide, said Texans are literally carrying money by the bus load across state lines to casinos in Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
"There are tour buses that are offering free trips if you can guarantee that there will be 50 people or more on them," he said. "From what I've seen, they've had no trouble filling them up."
In the know: Gambling money
Some contributors with ties to gambling interests and their gifts to gubernatorial candidates since 2003:
- Greg LaMantia, owns interests in racetracks, $193,000 to Carole Keeton Strayhorn
- Harlan Crow, real estate developer with racetrack interests, $25,000 to Rick Perry, $167,000 to Strayhorn
- Gordon Graves, slot machine manufacturer, $78,000 to Perry, $45,000 to Strayhorn
- George Hixson, owns interests in racetracks, $115,000 to Perry, $2,500 to Strayhorn
- Red McCombs, car dealer with interests in racetracks, $105,400 to Perry, $11,500 to Strayhorn
- Maxxam Inc. PAC, racetrack owner, $60,000 to Perry, $25,000 to Strayhorn
- Big City Capital, racetrack owner, $50,000 to Perry
John Moritz, 512-476-4294 firstname.lastname@example.org