Bringing any casinos to Texas will require an amendment to the state constitution, which will require a two-thirds vote of both houses in the Legislature and a simple majority vote of the Texas electorate. While Governor Rick Perry has pledged to veto any casino gambling bills that cross his desk, his office plays no role in amending the constitution.
Pro-casino forces have been greatly aided by this year's downfall of hard-shell social conservative House Speaker Tom Craddick. By contrast, Craddick's replacement, Joe Straus, seems a godsend to the pro-casino side: not only is he more moderate in general, but the Straus family has been involved in the horse racing business for over a century. As Straus even now retains a limited interest in San Antonio's Retama Race Park, he has pledged to take a hands-off approach to gambling bills.
No fewer than three bills have been introduced in this session of the Legislature. One would legalize slot machines at the state's slumping horse and dog tracks. Pro-gambling forces in Galveston adamantly oppose this measure, as many believe it would funnel money rightfully theirs into the coffers of the Gulf Greyhound Park in La Marque.
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A second bill would use an end run to legalize poker on the basis that it is a game of skill and not chance, and thus not subject to the language of the gambling ban in the Texas constitution. However, since it would not require a constitutional amendment, the poker bill would most likely be vetoed by Perry, who is believed to be currying favor with ultraconservatives in his upcoming primary battle against gubernatorial candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison.
The most grandiose bill would allow for the whole enchilada: 12 resort-style casinos, slot machines at both race tracks and Texas's three Indian reservations — the Tigua near El Paso, the Kickapoo in Eagle Pass, and the Alabama-Coushatta near Lake Livingston. Should that bill pass, whatever benefits Galveston would obtain from having a casino would be eroded by a casino just beyond Houston's northernmost suburbs and slot machines just across the Causeway in La Marque.
But even with Straus in the Speaker's chair, and even with the added impetuses of a declining economy, plummeting state revenue and a hurricane-ravaged coast, Texas gambling legislation faces a long, hard slog. As ever, there will be staunch opposition from church groups and other social conservatives. It seems increasingly unlikely that any action on this front will occur in this legislative session, and even if the big enchilada bill made it out of committee and through the constitutional amendment process, years of wrangling would follow. Next would come the enabling legislation phase, and there still wouldn't be any broken ground on any casinos, notes Harris "Shrub" Kempner, a member of the city's advisory Finance Committee and the de facto leader of the anti-gambling side.
"Then there would have to be a permitting process, then after the permits were done, there would be people having to find sites, and then construction could begin," he says. "All that is going to take at least six years. What help would that give us in recovering from this hurricane?"