From AP and WDL writers

AUSTIN — Some Texas lawmakers are trying again to establish Las Vegas-style casinos in Texas, and they say now is the time to do it because the state needs the money.

Sens. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, and John Carona, a Dallas Republican, unveiled their casino legislation Tuesday and said that Texans are gambling, but they’re going to out-of-state casinos to do it. They said the state of Texas should get a take of that action through casinos’ tax revenue and jobs.

“Texans are already gaming. They’re going to continue to do so. I say let’s regulate it and let’s tax it and let’s use the money to pay for public schools and highways and other needy programs in the great state of Texas,” Ellis said, noting that the state has a lottery and pari-mutuel wagering at horse and dog tracks while pointing out that Texans gamble via the Internet and on eight-liner machines.

The proposal calls for up to 12 destination resort casinos, meaning they would be major real estate developments that would include retail and other entertainment, Carona said. At least one casino could open in Galveston, which is struggling to revive its economy after Hurricane Ike. The measure also would allow slot machines at existing horse and dog race tracks and casino gambling on Texas Indian reservations.

The two senators pushed a similar bill last time, but it failed.

Baptists and social conservatives who oppose gambling are vowing to fight the proposal again. And some out-of-state casino interests aren’t excited about seeing competing gambling operations getting going in Texas, especially with the slumping economy.

There’s also a rift developing between casino and racetrack interests.

Though House Speaker Joe Straus, whose family has interests in horse racing, has said he’ll stay out of gambling legislation, two of his close allies — House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, and Rep. Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat — are backing the casino bill.

“I am lending my name and my support to this legislation because I believe it is absolutely the right thing to do for Texas and it’s time to let the voters of Texas decide on whether to allow destination resort casinos in Texas,” Pitts said in a statement.

“As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I am well aware of the difficult budget situation facing this state. We have less revenue available than we did two years ago and when I look ahead to where we might be in 2011 and beyond, the picture does not get much better,” Pitts said.

“The time has come for the legislature to take a serious look at allowing destination resort casinos. Texans are already gaming. Let’s regulate gaming, tax it and put that money to use for Texas,” he said.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry has said he doesn’t want to expand the “footprint” of gambling in the state, but he has stopped short of saying he would veto any gambling legislation. The governor can allow legislation to become law without his signature, and proposed constitutional amendments go straight to Texas voters, not the governor’s desk.

An anti-gambling group, Texans Against Gambling, issued a statement of opposition, with legislative director Weston Ware saying, “Gambling is poor public policy. Gambling always fails to deliver the long-term revenue it promises. It increases crime, bankruptcy and addition in the states where it is allowed to operate.”

Ware said gambling targets those “who can least afford to lose money” and said it is “bad for business.” Texas should instead invest in family-friendly entertainment centers, he said.

Proponents of the measure counter with numbers indicating that casinos would produce from $3 billion to $4.5 billion per year in state and local tax money, with $1 billion of that constitutionally dedicated to paying for college tuition and $1 billion for highway construction.

They contend the casinos would directly create as many as 118,000 new jobs and thousands more supporting jobs and bring $14 billion to $19 billion in economic activity from tourism each year.

Though some casinos in other states are seeing a downturn during the recession, Ellis, Carona and Menendez said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the capitol that doesn’t mean Texas should stay away from the casino industry.

They said it takes time to develop casinos and that legislation passed this session would allow the gambling businesses to open a couple of years from now.

Tommy Azopardi, executive director for Texans for Economic Development, which favors allowing slot machines at race tracks and contends they would generate about $1 billion per year for the state, said it doesn’t oppose legalization of casinos as long as race tracks get “full parity.”

“Anything less will cause more harm to a horse industry that is already at a competitive disadvantage to our surrounding states,” Azopardi said in a prepared statement. He said the casino legislation filed Tuesday would create a disparate tax rate between casinos and tracks and would not allow the tracks to have the same games as casinos.

Both sides have put forth polls that they say show voter support for their positions.

Figures released by Wilson Research Strategies indicate more than 68 percent of Texans would support allowing a limited number of destination resort casinos with the dedication of $1 billion per year to college scholarships and $1 billion to transportation projects.

The poll also indicated support across political lines, with 62 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents saying they would vote in favor of the proposal, which would go before voters in a constitutional amendment election.

Pitts noted that when Texans were asked how they would prefer lawmakers to address a potential budget shortfall, they responded with a 4-to-1 margin expressing a preference for destination resort casinos over either raising taxes or cutting essential services.

“The people of Texas want us to take a serious look at destination resort casinos and I believe the legislature will do so this session,” he said.

Crunching the numbers, $1 billion per year dedicated to college scholarships could pay for tuition and fees for 240,000 Texas high school students each year, equating to 1,600 students from the district of each member of the Texas House.

Capturing tax revenue generated by the destination resort casinos could provide “a serious portion of the funding” toward the state’s transportation needs without having to raise taxes, Pitts said.

The Senate casino gambling bills are SB 1084 and SJR 31.

Daily Light Managing Editor JoAnn Livingston contributed to this report.