AUSTIN -- At Sam Houston Race Park in Northwest Houston, fans are free to watch and wager on what is one of the few forms of legal gambling in Texas. It's a long way from casinos, table games and slot machines, but some are hoping to change that.
"According to a study released this month, Texans spend nearly $3 billion annually at gaming facilities in Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico, helping to pay for their roads, their schools and their hospitals," state Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) told media gathered Monday at the Texas Capitol.
The study paid for by gaming supporters suggests 82 percent of Texas voters believe expanding gaming should be placed on the ballot for voters to decide, and a bill offered by Carona would give them the opportunity do just that.
Filed last month, SJR 64 would allow a constitutional referendum for voters to approve the creation of a limited number of casino resorts across the state, as well as authorize slot machines at certain racetracks. Carona argues the proposal would not only be a boon to state coffers, but also deal a crippling blow to the underground illegal gaming business by creating a legitimate and well-regulated industry.
"At a minimum, the creation of destination resort casinos in this state would be expected to create 75,000 new and well-paying jobs in 40 different sectors of the economy," Carona said.
Supporters say the proposal would also boost a live horse racing industry that over the years has struggled to compete with other states.
"This means thousands of jobs at Sam Houston Race Park," said president Andrea Young. "It means a revitalized horse racing industry and maybe more important than all it means significant economic development."
"What I can tell you with certainty with my experience is that it hurts folks, that folks lose money," said Rob Kohler, who worked for the Texas Lottery before becoming a consultant for the Christian Life Commission, part of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Kohler accuses gambling supporters of painting opponents as moralists, arguing casinos are a fun getaway for Texans with disposable income. His worry is that if opened in Texas, the immediate access could instead feed the impulses of gambling addicts, most of whom have little money to burn.
"It is probably the most inefficient, regressive tax there is," said Kohler.
Calling proponents economic projections into question, Kohler argues the state has yet to see the boom in revenue promised when voters authorized horse and greyhound race track betting in 1987.
"I think at the beginning it was a significant source of revenue," said Young, pointing out while other states have relaxed gaming laws at racetracks, Texas has not. "They changed the game. Around 2002 they started to change their laws and we haven't adjusted to the competitive environment."
Casino gambling supporters have tried and failed to pass similar legislation many times before in Texas. Carona says race track owners, casino operators and the racing horse industry were all involved in the conversation and crafting of SJR 64, marking a major step forward over previous years.
"That's a huge victory," said Carona, who suggests the data shows public opinion has grown more favorable as well.
"Joe Six-Pack, he gets it," said Texas Gaming Association Chairman Jack Pratt. "So we're hopeful at this point if there can be some real discussion, that this can come on up and our time has arrived."