Gaming interests betting new Legislature will be amenable to expansion
By LISA SANDBERG and MATT STILES
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — Texas gambling interests have grandiose visions for turning the Lone Star State into a gamer's paradise — and when the pitch for slot machines, casinos and more racetrack betting makes its way to the Legislature, the man likely to hold the power in the House will have more than a passing interest.
Joe Straus, the San Antonio Republican who's likely to become the next House speaker, comes from a family intimately entwined in Texas horse racing — a family that would stand to gain from legislation easing the restrictions on racetrack betting.
Since emerging over the weekend as the sole candidate to replace House Speaker Tom Craddick, Straus has promised a hands-off approach to gambling of any sort: "As speaker, I'll stay away from it ... and not allow it to be a distraction or an issue," he said this week.
Gambling supporters say they welcome Straus, but they're not yet counting their fortunes.
"I don't think we win or lose anything" with Straus at the helm, said Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, a fierce gambling advocate who chairs the House committee that oversees gambling.
The hope of gambling and casino business interests is to give Texas what states like Mississippi and Louisiana have: gambling profits.
One group seeks permission to build a dozen destination resort-style casinos, currently forbidden by Texas. Another wants to add video slot machines at racetracks.
The Tigua and the Alabama-Coushatta Indian tribes want reservation gaming. Business leaders in Galveston see casinos as a way to help finance reconstruction following Hurri-cane Ike.
236 gambling lobbyistsAnd these often competing groups spend millions each year trying to ease the myriad gaming restrictions Texas has in place.
There were 236 lobbyists identified as having gambling interests last year, the vast majority of them gambling supporters.
According to Texans for Public Justice, an organization that tracks the influence of money in Texas politics, gambling interests paid lobbyists between $2.7 million and $5.2 million last year.
Between January and October of 2008, people and organizations tied to gaming contributed more than $800,000 to political candidates in statewide races across in Texas.
Lawmakers in Houston and surrounding counties have received at least $430,000 in donations from people with an interest in slots and casinos, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of campaign finance records.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he strongly supports passing a constitutional referendum that would allow voters to decide if they support legalized gambling.
He believes the public would approve the idea, particularly if a portion of the revenue would go to cash-strapped state priorities, such as Hurricane Ike relief or higher pay for teachers and corrections officers.
If voters approved, the Legislature could in a later session settle the thorny issue of whether to allow traditional casinos or the more limited idea of slot machines in horse racing tracks, Whitmire said.
"Before you get to working out those complications, you first have to ask the people to vote on it," he said.
Whitmire has received more than any other legislator in the Houston delegation, about $50,000 in campaign donations since 2000.
"It doesn't have a damn thing to do with who has supported me," he said. "It has to do with the fact that I have confidence in people of my district and the state of Texas to make the right decision."
After Whitmire, state Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, have received the most from gambling industry donors since 2000, records show. They collected more than $46,000 and $42,000, respectively. Neither returned calls for comment.
Despite the money that pours in, just one gambling bill made it to the House floor last session, a bill that would have permitted limited gambling on the Tigua and Alabama Coushatta Indian reservations.
Unstable revenue source?Gambling has faced intense opposition in Texas. Suzii Paynter, director of the Texas Christian Life Commission, an arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, argues that gambling is an unstable, unreliable revenue source, and takes money from people who can ill afford it.
"The last thing the state of Texas should be doing is encouraging people, in this economy, to gamble away their money," Paynter said.
Chris Shields, a lobbyist for the Texas Gaming Association, which seeks to bring destination resort-style casinos to Texas, acknowledged that the various gambling factions in Texas have often worked against one another. He said he hoped for more cooperation this session.
Flores, the state representative from Palmview, said gambling initiatives have been hampered mostly by run-of-the-mill lawmakers, not the leadership in the House and Senate.
A constitutional amendment would be needed to expand gambling in Texas.
Straus, who seems certain to be elected House speaker, grew up around horse racing, and worked with his father to develop the Retama Park Race Track north of San Antonio.
"He was born into a family of racing," said David Hooper, executive director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association. "He has an intimate knowledge of racing and breeding and track operations. I can't believe that this is anything but a plus for us."