Slot machines at horse racing tracks are all the rage today.
Seven Texas racetracks, including Grand Prairie's Lone Star Park, could function as around-the-clock gambling casinos open 365 days a year under a multibillion-dollar proposal presented to a legislative panel Monday.
State Rep. Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, made the presentation to be included in a far-reaching package of legislation that would overhaul the way Texas pays for public education.
Under Pitts' proposal to the House Select Committee on Public School Finance, Lone Star Park and six other racing facilities, along with three Indian reservations, could operate as many as 40,000 video slot machine-style lottery terminals where patrons play for cash prizes.
Pitts and lawyers representing the Texas Lottery Commission and the state attorney general's office said the machines would generate more than $2.6 billion a year, with the state receiving $1.57 billion.
Officials project that Lone Star Park, the 8-year-old racetrack just north of Interstate 30 between Dallas and Arlington, would produce $1.7 billion in annual revenues and pump $701.7 million into the state treasury. That's more than Las Vegas hotels and casinos generate for the state of Nevada, the select committee was told.
"That blows my mind," said state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, the panel's chairman.
The rate of return was based on the provision in the measure that calls for the state to collect 60 cents on every dollar earned by each video slot machine. But the former chairman of Lone Star Park warned that the state's desire to maximize its revenue could sabotage the venture before it is launched.
"You won't be able to develop the facility if the tax rate and all costs on the track are as high as that," said Robert Kaminski, who is now a consultant to Lone Star Park's parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp. "You can't tax it so high on the front end that it reduces the incentive to put the investment in to generate the revenue that the state wants."
I already know the real answer to this question, but is anyone else wondering why there's so much official concern for the well being of race track owners?
During testimony about video lottery terminals, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs told the committee that having the terminals would help the state's equine industry. She said money the racetracks would get from the terminals would help fatten their purses, luring owners with better breeds of racehorses to the state.
"If you go to race, and the maximum prize you can get is $5,000 versus $500,000, where are you going to go?" Combs said after her testimony. "You're going to go to the $500,000."
By the way, why is the Ag Commissioner testifying on this subject?
"I look at it from the aspect of rural economic development," Combs testified before a House committee as legislators entered their second week of a special session.
Seven horse and dog tracks in Texas, including Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, would average 4,000 video slot machines. The rest would be on three American Indian reservations.
To put the figures into context: Caesar's Palace on the Las Vegas strip has about 2,000 slot machines. The state of Louisiana has just over 14,000 video slot machines. West Virginia has 10,500.
Nevada has about 210,000 slot and gaming machines, according to the 2003 annual report of International Game Technology, the country's largest manufacturer of slots and gaming devices.
Some state leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, have said the slot machines wouldn't amount to expansion of gambling in the state because they would be confined to locations where other forms of gambling already are allowed.
"The proposal allows the Texas Lottery Commission to operate a video lottery system consistent with the public policy that strictly limits the expansion of gambling in Texas," Mr. Pitts said. "This amendment will continue to control the proliferation of gambling by only allowing ... [gaming] at horse and dog tracks in Texas and certain Indian lands."
This all may be an academic exercise, as there exists some strong opposition in the Lege to expanded gambling.
Republican House members Linda Harper-Brown of Irving and Jodie Laubenberg of Parker say they can't support the use gambling to finance education.
Ms. Laubenberg heard about the Pitts proposal from a reporter late Monday.
"Is he serious?" she said. "My position hasn't changed."
Ms. Laubenberg said her opposition to the slot machine idea is "nothing against the governor."
"But this is just one component of the plan I cannot support," she said.
Ms. Harper-Brown said lawmakers who oppose gambling will prevail.
"This does nothing to damage our resolve," she said of the Pitts proposal.
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said senators waiting for House action will consider slot machines, adding, "My preference is to not do it."
"I've never been a supporter of state-sanctioned gambling," he said.
[Rep. Kent] Grusendorf, referring to moves to change Perry's proposed restrictions on local governments' ability to raise taxes, said, "It'd be nice to get one hot-button issue off the table."
Advocates for cities and counties, who question the fairness of lawmakers directing local tax decisions, said they are reviewing language reached this weekend by Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson. Perry's office said the governor remains committed to his original proposals "at this time."
"We've come as close as we can possibly get to agreement on it," Hill said.
Under the changes, voters would be asked to cap at 5 percent how much a single-family home's valuation can annually increase for tax purposes. Perry has proposed a 3 percent cap.
Perry has sought to require local governments to seek voter approval of tax increases that outpace population growth and inflation. The new language would permit voters to petition for a tax rollback if local governments increase taxes 5 percent or more, not counting tax breaks for economic development.
Currently, voters can petition for a rollback if a local agency raises taxes more than 8 percent above the rate needed to raise what it spends on day-to-day operations. School boards are required to hold ratification elections rather than awaiting a petition.
Voters would be asked to approve or reject such tax increases once 5 percent of voters who cast ballots in the previous presidential election sign a rollback petition — easier than the existing requirement that 10 percent of registered voters in a local jurisdiction sign a petition.
Hill said the proposal also would include a proposed constitutional amendment barring future Legislatures from handing down "unfunded mandates" to local agencies, with the attorney general advising whether laws breach the ban.
UPDATE: Missed this op-ed by Perry himself.
My plan may not be perfect, but it is the best plan I know of to achieve four basic goals: improving funding for education, lowering the school property tax burden, replacing Robin Hood with a more equitable system and sustaining and enhancing the job climate in Texas.
Those who criticize my plan have an obligation to do more than criticize. They need to offer Texans their constructive solutions, too. Let's have a positive debate about ensuring long-term prosperity and opportunity for the people of Texas. If lawmakers and other leaders stay focused on tax relief and better schools, we will succeed. And Texas will be better off for it.
And Carlos Guerra reminds us that we've seen this trick before.
This is hardly a new idea. Texas' parimutuel entrepreneurs have pushed for video lottery terminals for years, and not only to benefit Texas schoolchildren.
It began in 1987, after parimutuel tracks won voter approval following a multimillion-dollar ad campaign promised that the "sport of kings" would pump billions into the state treasury, create thousands of new jobs and help Texas dog and horse breeders.
In 1993, after the rosy predictions failed to materialize and several new tracks resorted to bankruptcy protection, the Legislature authorized simulcast betting — wagers on out-of-state races — to help the struggling ventures survive.
In 1995, $521 million was bet on Texas tracks, with more than half — $262 million — on live races and the remainder on simulcast contests. But by 2003, these tracks' wagers had grown only $36 million to $557 million, and bets on live races had dropped to $114 million.
And during that time, all the tracks' state taxes on bets dropped from $7,386,299 to $4,676,860.
The tracks' total attendance between 1995 and 2003 dropped from 3,534,208 to 2,862,501.
Now, remind me again: Whom exactly are these slots going to help?