Referendum on Casinos in Texas Gets Boost

A proposed constitutional referendum to allow casino gambling in Texas got a boost Monday when a Dallas-area senator announced that interest groups had united behind a measure he introduced at the Texas Legislature.

Republican Sen. John Carona said that big casinos and race tracks had agreed to support his proposed constitutional amendment. If approved by lawmakers and voters, it would allow 21 casinos statewide and create a gambling commission.

In the past, casino operators, horse and dog owners, horse breeders and the state's federally recognized tribes couldn't agree on expanding Texas gambling, often trying to make sure that any effort to legalize would guarantee them a minimum market share. Carona said that unity behind the proposal was a success, even if the bill does not pass this year.

"This bill provides for a very limited number of casinos and the protection of the public, including those with a moral objections, comes from the fact that it is a constitutional amendment," Carona said. "Once the language is agreed upon and sent to the voters, the voters get to choose, and legislators can't come along and change it without voters being re-engaged."

The proposal would allow one casino each in Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio with three additional casinos along the coast. Three racetracks in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston could operate casinos and nine small race tracks could apply for licenses to operate casinos or slot machines.

The three federally recognized Indian tribes would also each have a casino license. The amendment would only allow two casinos per county and no more than three in a major metropolitan area.

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

"Oklahoma, Oklahoma, is now the third-largest generator of gaming revenue in the country behind only Nevada and California," Carona said. "Well, let's face it; we all know where that money is coming from -- Texas into Oklahoma."

Religious organizations, a few conservative groups and some liberals oppose gambling because they say it's harmful to the community and poor people often suffer the most.

Former Texas Sen. John Montford, spokesman for the pro-gambling group Let Texans Decide, said studies show that Texans spend nearly $3 billion visiting casinos and racetracks in neighboring states and that Texans should be allowed to vote on whether to allow casinos. Texas is one of only 10 states that still ban all casino gambling.

"We feel the people of Texas are smart enough, educated enough and certainly savvy enough about what's going on that they ought to decide this issue for themselves," he said.

Carona said he was particularly concerned about the Texas horse-breeding industry, which has almost completely died out because other states have banned Texas horses and local tracks can't generate enough prize money under the current system.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said the group supports the measure because it could bring thousands of jobs to the state and would save Texans from having to travel to neighboring states in order to game.

NBC 5's Omar Villafranca contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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