We already knew gaming lobbyists were pushing hard to convince lawmakers that one answer to the whopping budget gap could be found at the Blackjack tables. But what kind of adult wonderland do these people envisage?
KUT News put the question to Texas Gaming Commission chairman Jack Pratt. He's a longtime hotel and casino mogul who also helped found T.G.I. Fridays. At one point, his company owned the Holiday Inn franchise. He says his family has developed more $3.5 billion in properties over the years, including apartment complexes, shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, and of course, casinos. In other words, Pratt is the kind of good ol' boy who dreams big about cashing in.
The bill Pratt is pushing would not legalize gambling; it would establish a referendum on whether to legalize gambling. The political rationale is that it would be easier for socially conservative lawmakers, or even moderate Republican lawmakers afraid of being unseated by social conservatives in the next primary, to approve such a law. "They have all the cover in the world," Pratt told us candidly.
Pratt would like to see nationally recognized gaming companies like Harrahs or Riviera build large Las Vegas strip-style casinos in Harris County (Houston-area), Bexar County (San Antonio-area), Tarrant County (Fort Worth-area) and Dallas County (Dallas-area).
"It would be those types of facilities that would cost, for Phase I, upwards of $2 billion a piece," Pratt said. "This is a huge economic impact bill, as well as raising a lot of new revenue, versus taxing the people."
On top of those casinos, there would also be three or four mid-size gambling resorts that would cost closer to $1 billion each. The bill would also legalize slot machines at race tracks.
Pratt says the front-end licensing fees would raise at least $1 billion for the current biennium, and would generate "a number of billions of dollars" for the state in the future.
But passing a law will not be a cakewalk, according to one economic analyst.
"The [November] election results probably brought a group that's a little more opposed to it than what you would have found before," analyst Ray Perryman told KUT News, referring to the 99 Republican lawmakers who will occupy almost two-thirds of the 150 seat state house. Many of those lawmakers were swept to victory by a tide of Tea Party supporters who are believed to hold morally conservative views on gambling and its social consequences.
Perryman also said the death of State Rep. Ed Kuempel (R-Seguin) earlier this month will complicate the political calculation. Kuempel was a rare mix: a socially conservative rural lawmaker who supported legalized gambling.
But Pratt says he still has hope that his vision is politically possible.
"I think I'll feel better about it once we visit with the 22 new members who are coming in. We've talked with a few. We know bascially what the Tea Party believes in," Pratt said. "They certainly want to give a voice to the people. That's one of their mantras. That's what we want. Let the people decide."