Is now the time for gambling in Texas?

January 13, 2009 4:48:57 PM PST
Las Vegas style gambling casinos could be in the future for Galveston Island. Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston County, but is gambling the push the economy there needs? [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Forget driving to Louisiana or flying to Las Vegas. Your next casino gambling trip could be as close as Galveston. Some Texas lawmakers hope so. Tuesday was the first day of the legislative session in Austin, and one of the big issues on the agenda was legalizing gambling in our area.

"I think gambling is an awful way to have to fund state services," said state Senator Rodney Ellis. "But you know what? Texans are funding state services in Louisiana, in New Mexico, in Nevada by gaming."

Elis and a number of Houston-area Democrats have traditionally supported the idea of land based casinos, but it's never been popular with conservative Democrats, nor Republicans like Sugar Land's Charlie Howard.

"We don't need something else for people to get addicted to, to get in the poor house, to cause more crime in our state," he said.

But this year, the proposal could gain more steam. With a projected revenue downfall of $9 billion, and the Texas coast, especially Galveston, still reeling from Hurricane Ike, lawmakers feel more pressure to find money for rebuilding.

Freshman Representative Carol Alvarado is ready to push ahead.

"If we do it right, and have casinos that are built that are resorts, that have hotel rooms, that have restaurants and shops, that are venues to create jobs," she said.

To make gambling expansion a reality, a lot of lawmakers from both sides still need to be convinced.

"I have evaluate the circumstances and see," said state Representative Allen Fletcher. "At this point, I don't think it's going to be on the agenda."

And that will be the biggest challenge of all.

"I'm open-minded towards it," said State Representative Sylvester Turner. "But don't put me down as a yes at this point."

Would you go to a Galveston casino? We asked around and got mixed reaction.

"I definitely agree with legalizing gambling in Galveston," said resident Myrna Onanian. "It would help the economy in Galveston and spill over in Houston."

"If it would help them rebuild, I think it would be a good idea," added Christiana Bednorz.

"I know there are a lot of people who enjoy that form of entertainment and would spend their money that way," countered Carol Williams. "I don't choose to spend my money that way."

The next question is what kind of gambling should Texas should bet on.

For supporters on Galveston Island, casino gambling has never been more than a faint sound way off on the horizon. The possibility of casino gambling here, at least the legal kind, and the money it would bring in have always washed out with the tides.

This year, though, supporters say the tide is bringing a little more hope.

"There's definitely an optimism with certain people that feel like finally something could happen with gaming in Texas," said business owner Tillman Fertitta.

Fertitta, who owns Las Vegas' Golden Nugget, is a supporter, but hasn't been real vocal in the past. There was, he said, no chance of it passing then.

But now with the election of a new speaker, with family gambling interests and financial need created by Hurricane Ike, the game has changed.

"I'm excited about it, if we do it the right way," he said.

And that is where the fight starts.

In Texas, adding any sort of gambling would likely require a constitutional amendment. And when legislators talk about legalizing gambling, there are enough options to fill up a roulette wheel. The biggest is to allow casinos or just slot machines at horse and dog tracks.

"We already have gambling here," said Jon Paul Fauer with Gulf Greyhound Park.

And that is the biggest reason to expand there alone. Insiders say it would give gambling opponents, like Governor Perry, political cover to say Texas is simply growing a business, not expanding gambling.

"This is our year, I think," said Fauer.

Fauer says the track would love to put hundreds of slots on the first floor and reopen the upstairs for racing. His hopefulness is, in part, financial reality. State figures show horse and dog track revenue is down $300 million a year since 2003, which is a 32 percent drop in five years. Sam Houston race track on Houston's north side is down 36 percent. Gulf Greyhound Park is down 44 percent.

"It would be a huge boost for us," said Fauer. "We have 250 employees right now. If we get slot machines, we'd have over 5,000 employees here at Gulf Greyhound Park."

Those numbers are hard to back up. Tracks in other states projected half as many jobs with the addition of slots. And advocates of casinos don't see the slots, only option adding to state tourism, especially on the island where there isn't a track.

"I would love to see full scale gaming," said Fertitta. "This is Texas. Why shouldn't we do it the right way where you create more jobs, you're going to create thousands of jobs and bring more people in from other states?"

We're virtually surrounded by states with legalized gambling.

"Why do we send millions of dollars a year across the border?" wondered Fertida.

Full scale casinos with restaurants and shows and hotels, Fertitta says, would also allow Galveston to cash at a time when so much of the city has moved out.

"They need people down there," said Fertitta. "How do you do it? You do it with gaming."

There is clearly large opposition to any kind of gambling in the state. And those opponents may still win the day. It would take not only a two thirds vote in the legislature, but a statewide vote, as well, to pass.

Another group is also pushing for a change to gaming laws. Indian tribes in Texas want limited casinos allowed on their land. The move was narrowly defeated in the House two years ago.

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