Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

April 10th, 2013:

Senate to consider expanded gambling

I didn’t really take it seriously when I heard that Sen. John Carona had filed his own gambling expansion legislation, but it seems it’s got some traction.

Sen. John Carona

A proposal from Dallas Republican Sen. John Carona would establish a commission that licenses 21 casinos throughout the state, including three mega-resorts in Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant counties and two smaller locations at Retama Park in San Antonio and Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.

Carona, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce committee, told reporters Monday the proposal would keep the estimated $3 billion Texans are spending at casinos in bordering states inside state coffers while creating more than 75,000 jobs. The committee, which will consider the measure Wednesday, is likely to pass the proposal on to the full Senate, he said.

“No one can really determine yet what chance of ultimate passage it has this session,” Carona said in an interview in his Capitol office, noting his vote tally indicates both chambers are a few votes shy of approval. “It is a difficult bill because of the presumed political consequences of it, but the polls show there is overwhelming public support.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who has supported similar measures in the past, said the chances of gambling passing the Legislature this session are “slim-to-none.”

However, Pitts said the final decision on the state’s school finance trial could provide a boost for gambling in Texas. If the current ruling – that the state’s public education funding is inadequate and unconstitutional – stands, lawmakers will be searching for a new source of revenue that does not create a new tax, he said.

[…]

Under Carona’s proposal, three casinos would be licensed in coastal counties, 12 would be reserved for racetracks and three would be designated for federally recognized Native American tribes.

The majority of revenue generated – 85 percent – would be dedicated to the Property Tax Relief Fund, which supports local programs, such as public education and emergency services. Remaining revenue would belong to city and county governments and fund programs to counter gambling problems. The constitutional amendment must gain two-thirds support of the House and Senate before moving on to voters in a statewide referendum.

Sen. Carona’s measure is SJR 64. If you’ll pardon the expression, the smart money is on nothing happening, as has always been the case before. The Trib goes into some more detail.

[Carona has] been working on casino legislation for the last few sessions, but his plan this year is much more comprehensive. In the past, gaming bills have either had the support of casinos or race tracks. But not both.

That split support had doomed the efforts. This time, Carona said, both groups are on board.

“Let me make clear that this legislation has very broad support,” he said. “While not all stakeholder concerns are resolved in this bill, we have come a long way. And it is my hope that we’ll continue to work together to bring forward a bill that is best for Texas.”

The senator said his legislation is still fluid — many changes could be made. So for now, there’s no price tag on how much money casino gambling would generate. But billions are expected from the three giant destination resort casinos and 18 other facilities that would be authorized under his resolution.

[…]

But hey, if you want to pass something in the Legislature, you need to do one of two things: Show what problem the legislation would fix or, as casino supporters did this week, show an enemy that would be defeated by this bill. And according to casino supporters, we have met the enemy — and it is Oklahoma.

“In particular, we’re hemorrhaging money to Oklahoma,” said John Montford of Let Texans Decide. “Not only do they recruit our best high school football players. They also snooker us each day by building their gaming empire on the backs of Texans.”

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond was even less diplomatic when explaining what he sees as the benefits of casinos in Texas.

“Texans will no longer have to travel to third-world countries in order to game,” Hammond joked. “It’s unfair and unconscionable that we are making these people travel to these third-world counties that surround Texas.”

The state’s hatred of Oklahoma aside, there are still several roadblocks to casinos in Texas. Carona’s resolution needs a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate before it heads to the ballot as a constitutional amendment this November.

And on the Senate side, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has a history of threatening a filibuster over gaming legislation. As debates have neared in the past, she has even put tennis shoes on her desk on the Senate floor to let people know she’s ready to go if needed.

And, of course, if a resolution passes the House and Senate, then there’s the final statewide vote — a vote that will certainly include groups opposing casinos on moral grounds along with some backed by those neighboring states’ casinos that don’t want to lose business.

The 100-vote threshhold in the House is pretty daunting. Speaker Joe Straus will not be an ally, since he stays away from gambling bills to avoid talk about conflicts of interest, and there’s likely to be enough social conservative opposition to make it at best a close call. Still, even getting a bill out of committee in the Senate is farther than the gambling expansion forces have gone in the past. If Carona’s bill can actually make it to the floor in both chambers, who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Watch the county’s business

I wholeheartedly approve of this.

Meetings of the Harris County Commissioners Court and the governing boards of the Port of Houston Authority, the Harris Health System and the Harris County Department of Education soon could be streamed live online.

County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday [asked] the court for permission to find a vendor to provide “live-streaming and archiving services for Commissioners Court and other public meetings” held in the ninth-floor chamber of the county administration building.

On Friday, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack added a supplemental item to Tuesday’s meeting agenda calling for that search to include other taxpayer-supported agencies – the port, Harris Health System and the county education department – and for them to foot the bill.

Radack said Emmett has “got a good idea and I think we might as well expand it to include those other people and see if the other members of court agree or disagree.”

“Frankly, I would like to tune into some of them myself just to see what they do,” said Radack said, a frequent critic of the hospital district and port.

He added that including more agencies could reduce the overall cost quoted by a vendor.

Emmett applauded the expanded proposal, and most commissioners expressed support for it.

“I think my original proposal was quite good and I think the supplemental just makes it that much better,” Emmett said. “My attitude is that if you’re going to have public meetings and it’s an easy way to allow the public to look in on your public meetings, I’m all for it.”

About time, I say. This should be the norm for government entities. It’s inexpensive to provide, it promotes transparency and involvement, and it’s just the right thing to do. Kudos to Judge Emmett for proposing it and to Commissioner Radack for improving on Judge Emmett’s idea.

Voter ID and the Driver Responsibility Program

Grits returns to a question he has asked before.

The Dallas News last week (March 24) published a feature behind the paywall by reporter Terrence Stutz titled “Texas lawmakers want brakes put on driver surcharges for road violations,” as well as an editorial on the public part of their site calling for the repeal of this “messy mistake of a law.” Their timing was good because state Rep. Larry Gonzales’ HB 104 has been scheduled for a public hearing on Wednesday, April 3 upon adjournment in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. I wholeheartedly agree it’s time to eliminate the surcharge and find better, more reliable ways to fund regional trauma centers. However, vanity compels me to highlight a sidebar to the story which ponders a question Grits first considered last year in this post: “Was the Texas voter ID law undone by the troubled Texas Driver Responsibility Program?” Noted Stutz:

Although no study has ever been done on the link between the two, experts have speculated that the driving surcharge program — which has caused 1.3 million drivers to lose their licenses — made it much more difficult for Texas to defend its 2011 law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.

In August, a federal appeals court refused to uphold the voter ID law in part because so many Texans lacked a driver’s license or state photo ID. Minorities made up a large percentage of them.

An analysis by the Texas secretary of state last year could not find matching driver’s licenses or state photo IDs for as many as 2.4 million Texas voters. That included 1.6 million who had licenses or IDs when they registered to vote.

From Grits for Breakfast:

Among those who see a link is Austin political consultant and criminal justice blogger Scott Henson. Based on the numbers, he sees a “definite correlation” between the DRP and the large number of voters who don’t have the photo ID most Texans rely on — a driver’s license.

“I’d love to see the state run another matching program to find out how many voters without a current ID have defaulted on one or more of the Driver Responsibility Program surcharges,” Henson wrote on his blog, Grits for Breakfast.

Henson, who has testified in favor of the program’s repeal, also added: “How many negative consequences must the state suffer from this ill-conceived revenue-generation scheme before the Legislature finally repeals it?”

Grits continues to believe that the surcharge was a major contributor to Texas’ voter ID law being rejected – not the sole reason, perhaps, but neither at all an insignificant one. I also believe it has significantly harmed the economy.

See here for my thoughts on that Grits post from last year. It’s an interesting hypothesis, but we don’t have nearly enough data to make any firm conclusions. For what it’s worth, I think the biggest factor in the non-preclearance of voter ID was the Republicans’ utter refusal to accommodate in any way the large number of Texans who lack drivers licenses. If they had made any good faith effort to address that, I think it would have mooted the issue. But of course they didn’t want to address that – the whole point of voter ID was and is to prevent certain people from voting – so they got slamdunked by the court, and we are left to ponder these other questions.

Biking to transit

KUHF has an update.

Metro’s Strategic Planning Committee got an update on the “Bike and Ride” Access Study. Metro says it wants to make it easier for Houstonians to combine bike and bus travel.

Metro officials say between 10,000 and 15,000 people every month bring their bikes aboard when they use the bus. Every bus has a rack on front that can hold two bikes.

Initial results of a survey by Metro and the Houston-Galveston Area Council show many more riders would like to bring their bike on a bus or train, but they don’t know how transit fits into their travel choices.

Metro board member Christof Spieler says the goal of the study is to find ways to hook up bike trails with transit centers.

“And what those bike trails end up being, is they end up being ways to extend our light rail system. If you live in the Heights you might not have a light rail station, but you’ll have a bike trail that will lead you directly to a light rail station.”

I’ve discussed the bikes on trains issue before, and as noted in my first link remain hopeful that as the new light rail lines are completed and new rail cars are purchased that Metro will extend the hours in which you are allowed to bring your bike onto a train to include rush hour. The figures monthly bike boardings on Metro buses is in line with what Metro had previously reported. It’s a non-trivial amount, but there is surely room for that number to grow. More train service, more bike-on-train hours, and better bus service should help with that. I don’t know if anyone has articulated a goal for bike-to-transit usage – 20,000 combined bike-on-bus/train boardings per month? Thirty thousand? Fifty thousand? – but we should have one, and we should have a strategy for how to reach that goal. I hope that subject comes up as Metro and H-GAC evaluate the results of the survey, which you can still take.