There’s a legislative session coming up, right? That can only mean one thing: A new effort to expand gambling in Texas.
Track and gaming interests say voters should be allowed to decide whether to give Texas a shot at the benefits of $2.5 billion they say is wagered in surrounding states annually by Texans.
“They are taking our money to fund their programs, and I think they frankly have just been smarter than we have. My hat’s off to ’em,” said John Montford, a former state Senate Finance Committee chairman. He carried the legislation that established Texas’ lottery and now is involved in the casino battle.
Critics doubt the figures and call expanded gaming a losing proposition for Texas, saying gaming would take money from the pockets of people who can ill afford it.
Montford has been hired by the partnership of Penn National Gaming and Sam Houston Race Park to push the gambling expansion under the name of Let Texans Decide.
Among supporters listed on the group’s website are Valley Race Park, the Texas Association of Business, the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston Women’s chamber, Houston Hispanic chamber and Houston Northwest.
The Legislature has repeatedly turned down the chance to amend the state constitution to expand gambling, which would require a two-thirds vote of lawmakers before going on a state ballot.
The battle doesn’t look to be any easier this time.
State lawmakers who faced a huge revenue shortfall in their last regular session in 2011 now are seeing a recovering economy, and the House and Senate are no less conservative. Several incoming senators are viewed as further right than their predecessors.
“Before this session, there was probably a shot at passing something like that through the Senate. I think with the new members that we have in the Senate, it’s probably less likely than it was before. And I think it is very unlikely that either one of those proposals would get through the House,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, when asked about slots at tracks or casinos. Williams said he has never voted to expand gaming in Texas, adding that revenue figures presented in years past by supporters of the idea appeared unrealistic.
“I don’t have a big, huge moral objection to it, but I’m not sure it’s for the benefit of the state,” Williams said.
Dale Craymer, president of the business-based Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, said, “One of the considerations for casino gambling is the fact that it raises revenue, and that’s a big issue during a session when they are looking for revenue. This is not going to be a session where they are looking for revenue.”
Yes, God forbid we should seek out any new revenue sources any time outside of a severe crisis, not that we do then either. I’m not saying that more gambling is the way we should go to raise more revenue for the state, I’m just saying we’re a million miles from being at a point where we can say that we don’t need any more revenue sources. Between water, transportation, Medicaid, mental health services, education, and a whole host of other needs, there are plenty of issues in need of more funding.
Texans for Public Justice, which tracks money in politics, found that gambling interests donated $1.6 million to Texas political action committees and candidates going into the 2010 elections.
TPJ, in a check of reports available for this year, found top gambling PACs from 2010 donated more than $904,000 this cycle. The total included only reports covering up until eight days before the election, so the total is sure to be higher.
According to Let Texans Decide, the Chickasaws and Choctaws, which have Oklahoma casino operations, have given Texas candidates five times as much as they gave Oklahoma candidates since 2008 — more than $807,000 in Texas compared to nearly $152,000 in Oklahoma. The Chickasaws also have invested in a Grand Prairie track.
There may not be money for the things Texans need, but there’s always money for the campaigns. As always, keep an eye on that as the debate progresses. There’s a scandal lurking out there somewhere.