GALVESTON — Casino gambling can be an effective economic development tool in some cases transforming languishing communities into powerhouses but it comes with a few inevitable downsides and even more pitfalls for leaders who fail to plan and manage its development carefully according to studies compiled in a newly released report.

Gambling is generally illegal in Texas but during each legislative session lobbyists introduce bills to legalize some form of it.

The Galveston Chamber of Commerce commissioned the study after 79 percent of about 500 members responding to a survey last year said they wanted the 800-member organization to advocate for casino gambling during the legislative session now under way in Austin.

Vic Pierson president of Moody National Bank and chairman of the chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee said the chamber had not added gambling to its legislative agenda despite the strong support among members indicated by the survey because the odds against a bill passing during the 82nd session seemed very long.

The chamber was monitoring the session however and the report had helped it draft a seven-point plan for addressing any gambling bills that came up.

The chamber’s strategy this session is more about heading off or changing gambling bills that would be bad for the island than about pushing a locally sponsored bill he said.

For example local leaders in the recent past have had to rally on short notice to fight bills allowing slot machines only at dog and horse racing tracks which is seen as a threat to the island’s tourism economy.

The report makes no recommendations about gambling in Galveston but was meant as an educational tool and is available to the public on the chamber’s website he said.

The report done by Kathy Thomas of Community Strategies Inc. is a summary compilation of a wide range of academic industry and government studies and news reports about commercial casino gambling nationally with special focus on Louisiana and Mississippi.

Biloxi Miss. got an especially detailed look because it is similar to Galveston and has had some success with commercial casino gambling Thomas said.

Thomas said she spent about 30 hours compiling the report mostly through Internet research and had included links to the original source material.

Much of the information in the report reiterates what Galvestonians already have heard in a long-running and contentious debate about whether having casinos would help revive or further enervate the island’s flagging economy.

Among the highlights the report turned up information about what Louisiana thinks of Texas legalizing casinos.

”Any form of casino gaming legalized in the Dallas andor Houston area would devestate the current ShreveportBossier and Lake Charles markets and result in significant losses in ... tax revenue” the state’s attorney general wrote in the 2006 analysis.

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The Chamber’s Plan

If casinos come to Texas in any form residents in the city of Galveston should by a vote of the people have the opportunity to accept or reject casinos on the island. In other words Galveston should have the opportunity to vote gambling up or down regardless of the vote in the rest of Galveston County the state or region.

Casinos should not be restricted to existing gambling enterprises in Texas (dog and horse racing tracks) but should be available on a more widely dispersed basis. Seventy-three percent of the Galveston Chamber’s members believe that casinos located elsewhere in the county but not in the city of Galveston would be harmful to their business.

There should not be an arbitrary legislatively imposed limit on the number of casino licenses granted in Texas but market forces should determine the ultimate number;

However some geographical restrictions may be acceptable. For example Mississippi allows casinos at waterfront locations and 800 feet inland.

Enabling legislation should allow local communities to share liberally in licensing fees and fees based on gross revenue of casinos as well as in locally generated property sales and licensing taxes. If a disproportionately large share of gambling proceeds goes to the state alone there will be insufficient incentive for local communities to take on the challenges associated with development of casinos.

For maximum economic benefit Texas should allow for and encourage resort-style casinos that would allow for development of all forms of casino gambling elsewhere (slot machines and an assortment of table games) as well as associated amenities such as hotels restaurants entertainment and golf courses and other attractions.

Enabling legislation should ban all unlicensed eight-liner operations such as those now operating in Texas.

SOURCE: Galveston Chamber of Commerce

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