Gambling interests hope Texas budget deficit will help their cause

Fort Worth Star-TelegramDecember 26, 2010 

FORT WORTH — From resort-style casinos to small charity poker tournaments, state lawmakers will be asked to raise revenue by approving a variety of legalized gambling bills next year.

Proponents have been trying for well over a decade to expand gambling options in Texas. This time around, two competing forces are coloring the debate.

On the one hand, Republicans have expanded their majority in the House to 101 members, and many are opposed to any expansion of gambling.

"We found no candidate running who said, 'If you elect me, we'll fund education through casinos,'" said Rob Kohler, a consultant for the Christian Life Commission, the public policy arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

But on the other hand, gambling proponents believe that prospects of a budget shortfall of more than $20 billion will improve the odds that lawmakers will take a more serious look at the potential revenue from casino-style gaming.

"This ought to give some wind to our backs given the amount of money they'll have to find," said Jack Pratt, chairman of the Texas Gaming Association.

Pratt said his team is still working out the details of the bill his group plans to endorse, which is expected to be filed next month by lawmakers including Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. The bill would ultimately put to voters whether to amend the state constitution to allow for resort-style casinos in a handful of locations, likely including Tarrant County, he said.

It's similar to the strategy Pratt and his allies have tried without success in the past. For the 2007 session, gambling lobbyists sweetened the pot by devoting part of the proposed gambling revenue to fund college scholarships to more than 200,000 Texas high school graduates annually. The measure still flopped.

Pratt said he expects that the new proposal, which will again help support higher education, could resonate more with lawmakers as universities are expected to face some of the most brutal cuts next year.

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