Posted 02 April 2007 - 07:39 AM
Lawmakers want to roll dice on casino gambling
Up to 12 casino projects in the state could pull tourists away from San Antonio into Dallas and other cities
Dallas Business Journal - March 30, 2007by W. Scott BaileySan Antonio Business Journal
As Texas' top visitor destination, San Antonio holds many of the cards when it comes to the tourism game.
But a bipartisan effort to legalize casino gambling in Texas, led by state lawmakers representing Dallas and Houston, could help other cities gain a bigger piece of the action.
Sens. John Carona, R-Dallas, and Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, are urging fellow state lawmakers to move swiftly on proposed legislation that would amend the constitution to allow legalized casino gaming in Texas.
As currently proposed, the Ellis-Carona Plan would dedicate revenue generated by state-regulated casino operations to financial aid programs designed to help ensure that more Texas students are in a position to afford the rising costs of attending college.
If passed by state lawmakers and approved by the voters, the legislation would establish the Texas Gaming Commission, which would be charged with licensing and regulating casinos. That commission would be authorized to grant up to 12 casino project licenses in Texas, with as many as seven going to Texas' larger urban areas.
Two additional casinos would be approved for the Gulf Coast region and up to three more would be spread out across the state in areas judged by the commission to best benefit from their job creation and economic impact.
"Poll after poll show an overwhelming majority of Texans support legalizing casino gaming," Ellis contends. "Texans are already voting with their feet and going out of state. It's time for Texas to reap the economic benefits and use that revenue to help Texas students go to college."
At press time, the proposed legislation, SB 1359, had been referred to the State Affairs committee.
Carona says the reason it deserves support is "a matter of economics."
He says Texans are already spending $10 billion annually on gambling, with most of that money leaving the state.
Texas economist Ray Perryman says well-regulated casino gaming in Texas could create as many as 400,000 new, permanent jobs. He says it could generate as much as $4.5 billion in state and local revenue.
The economic impact in construction alone, according to Perryman, could reach $45 billion.
Before any Texas city could get in on the action, a local election would have to be called. County voters would have to approve such a development.
That approval could prove difficult to come by in San Antonio, where leaders have historically been somewhere between lukewarm and cold to the idea of adding casinos to the Alamo City's list of attractions.
Greg Gallaspy, executive director of the Paseo del Rio Association, says San Antonio is likely a No. 1 target for potential casino developers. And the same River Walk area Gallaspy's nonprofit organization works to preserve and promote would no doubt be one of the hotter spots.
"I think it (legalizing casino gambling on the River Walk) would be bad for a lot of reasons," he explains.
It would, among other things, hurt existing businesses along the famed waterway, Gallaspy contends.
"I don't think this is something for the River Walk," he adds.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas is among the critics who have argued that casinos would negatively impact existing Texas tourist attractions like the River Walk.
Still, some critics and proponents are convinced that Texas will eventually legalize casino gaming.
"It's only a matter of time," Gallaspy says, adding that cities like Houston and Dallas will no doubt try to use casinos as another means of luring more visitors away from San Antonio.
If approved, Ellis' and Carona's proposed legislation would also legalize video lottery terminals at horse and greyhound tracks. That could provide a boost for the Retama Park horse track, where officials have lobbied for the legalization of these slot-like machines.
But adding casinos to the Texas landscape could have a negative impact on businesses currently making money off of gamblers who now have to travel outside the Lone Star State.
Star Shuttle & Charter, for example, is a privately owned San Antonio-based company which transports riders to Louisiana casinos for as little as $20. There could be fewer San Antonians seeking a long bus ride if they could gamble here at home.
Asked if his company has taken a position yet on the proposed legislation legalizing Texas casino gambling, Star Shuttle President John Walker simply says, "no."
Carona and Ellis say their proposed legislation is a starting point for discussion, not a conclusion to the process.
"We fully understand that the details of this legislation will change as we work with our colleagues throughout the session," Ellis explains.
He adds, "We are married to only one provision: Dedicating this revenue to help more Texans go to college."
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