February 24th, 2009 at 4:49 pm
09:03 AM CST on Monday, February 16, 2009
By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News
PILOT POINT – The paddocks at Valor Farm look promising: Their stallions are virile, their mares’ bellies bulge with future racehorses. But the numbers tell a different story.
Valor’s thoroughbred breeders have lost almost 40 percent of their business in the last five years, even before the economy hit the skids. Their best customers are leaving for states with more lucrative horse races, states – unlike Texas – that allow slot machines at racetracks.
"I hate to think what will happen to us without them," says Valor Farm general manager Ken Carson, his eyes locked on two wobbly foals (future Derby winners?) nursing under their tail-swishing mothers. "With Texas racing purses going the wrong way, we’re losing a reputation and an industry."
The horse breeders are just one layer of a complicated and competitive web of gaming interests in Texas. All – the racetrack owners, the prospective casino investors, the Indian tribes – want to loosen Texas’ current gambling prohibition. All have different, and so far ineffective, strategies for doing it. But they’ve got two things in common: their persistence and their checkbooks.
In the last year alone, gambling interests have contributed a combined $1.7 million to Texas lawmakers, $1.3 million of it from the horseracing industry alone. And they’re hoping for a stacked deck – with a new House speaker from a racetrack family, a legislative committee that seems open to gambling initiatives, and an economic slump that could send lawmakers looking for new revenue.
"I think it’s breaking out that way, simply because of the economy," said Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, chairman of the House committee that oversees gambling issues. "We’ll consider it if we need to provide some additional revenue to the state of Texas – which it looks like we will. But of course it’s still going to be up to the will of the House."
But while gambling may get a closer look than in sessions past, supporters acknowledge it’s just as likely their efforts could fall short.
Foes ‘just as loud’
Speaker Joe Straus, whose father founded the Retama Park racetrack outside San Antonio, has formally recused himself from all gambling legislation. Top state leaders say economic conditions in Texas aren’t bad enough to consider expanded gaming, particularly while casinos across the country are struggling. And though the newly appointed members of the House committee that oversees gaming seem open to it – and have accepted a combined $100,000 in campaign contributions from gambling interests since 2007 – any bills still would have giant hurdles in the House and Senate.
"There’s a lot of positioning of the lobbyists around the Straus connection, and the gambling push is always harder at a time when there’s a deficit in state spending," said Suzii Paynter, director of the Baptist General Convention’s Christian Life Commission. "But the voices are just as loud on the anti-gambling side."
The messages, five weeks into the legislative session, are the same as they’ve been for years. Top-dollar developers want to build resort-style casinos across the state by putting the issue on the ballot for voters to decide. Two Texas Indian reservations want to reopen casinos shuttered by the state in 2002, and a third wants to expand its limited gaming. And the horse and dog track operators, the thoroughbred breeders and, most recently, the Texas Farm Bureau want to allow slot machines at tracks, a move they say will save their foundering industry and bolster the struggling Texas Racing Commission.
Of these oft-aligned, oft-competing interests, the Indian reservations are the most persistent. They narrowly missed getting approval to reopen their casinos last session and have once again hired lobbyists they say they can’t afford. They’re a frequent presence at the Capital.
"It’s a sad sight right now," Carlos Bullock, chairman of the Alabama-Coushatta tribal council, said of conditions on the East Texas reservation. "We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to help our local economy with jobs and employment."
Supporters of resort casinos – the longest shot for success this session – have a new card up their sleeves: the prospect of using them to save storm-wrecked Galveston. They also have the strongest opposition, not just from Christian conservatives who reject gambling but from major casino companies fearing more competition in a tight market.
Boyd Gaming Corp. and Isle of Capri, which both operate casinos in six states, have registered lobbyists in Texas, as do several other Las Vegas-based casino companies. So do the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes of Oklahoma, which operate casinos over the Texas border but say their lobbying efforts are about far more than gaming.
The racing industry, meanwhile, seems the best organized – a stark contrast from previous sessions. The politically disparate racetrack operators, long prone to infighting, have set their differences aside, joining forces with the horse-breeding industry, the feed producers and the veterinarians to get slot machines on the ballot. They’re also enjoying the support of the Texas Farm Bureau, which says declining Texas racetracks are affecting everyone from hay producers to grain farmers.
"We’re better organized, better unified and better prepared this session than we’ve ever been," said Tommy Azopardi, president of Texans for Economic Development, which represents racetrack operators. "We’ve got an economy that is faltering, a legislative body faced with a budget shortfall. It’s just a more favorable climate."
Carson, the Valor Farm general manager, is keeping his fingers crossed. Right now, he’s got four regal racehorses siring 75 foals a year on this sprawling, 400-acre ranch. But since Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico started offering other gaming options at racetracks, their purses have swelled, and Texas’ have plummeted. The result: Louisiana-bred racehorses are selling for twice as much as those bred in Texas, and the number of licensed racehorse owners in Texas has dropped by more than 1,000 in the last year.
"So much of the news is bad," Carson says, his boots planted between sky-high stacks of sweet hay and alfalfa. If not for the doggedness of Valor Farm’s owners, "I’d already be on my way to Kentucky."
BY THE NUMBERS
$1.7 million: Amount gambling interests contributed to Texas lawmakers in 2008
76: Percentage of these contributions that came from the horseracing industry
$100,000: Contributions gambling interests gave to Dallas-area lawmakers in 2008
$95,000: Contributions gambling interests gave in the last two years to lawmakers on the House committee that oversees gaming
CONTRIBUTIONS TO LAWMAKERS
Among gambling contributions to local lawmakers in the last year:
Sen. Chris Harris: $30,000
Rep. Allen Vaught: $21,000
Rep. Kirk England: $18,500
Sen. Royce West: $12,500
Rep. Roberto Alonzo: $12,000
Rep. Rafael Anchia: $2,000
Rep. Will Hartnett: $1,500
Sen. John Carona: $1,000
Rep. Jim Jackson: $500
Rep. Burt Solomons: $500
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