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Monday, January 30, 2023
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Gambling in Texas?

A little over 30 years ago, the lottery was approved in Texas. It was promoted by then-Gov. Ann Richards to be the savior of public education funding, and it was condemned by many as the certain downfall of our civilized society. Like so many public policy assertions informed by hubris, neither was true. While some money from the lottery goes to education, it is only about 24% of the total ticket sales. For 2021, that was approximately $1.97 billion, according to the Texas Lottery’s website. While $1.97 billion is no small number, it is a very small percentage of the state’s overall public education budget of $33 billion.

Now, the drumbeat has started in a march to approve full-on gambling. These days, gambling is broken into multiple sub-industries with the main two being casinos and online sports betting. Interestingly it appears there are two separate efforts that are likely to be launched when the Texas Legislature convenes for its biannual 140 day session in early January.

The Texas Sports Betting Alliance is the leading promoter of legalizing online sports betting in Texas. This alliance is made up of 11 professional sports organizations, which include the Cowboys, Mavericks, Rangers, Stars and FC Dallas in our area. Jerry Jones, owner of the Cowboys, and Mark Cuban, owner of the Mavericks, also have significant financial ownership stakes in online sports betting companies. According to data provided by TSBA, there is approximately $8 billion annually in illegal online betting occurring in Texas. Sales tax on this alone would add about $500 million in revenue to the state’s coffers. TSBA claims its proposal will specifically require the tax revenue from online sports betting go directly to tax reduction. No legislation has yet been filed. It will take a powerful legislative member to get this done.

Onsite casino gambling like Las Vegas made popular and now on our borders in Oklahoma and Louisiana is the second effort we can expect to see this coming legislative session. In fact, there has already been a bill filed by Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. I served with Alvarado and I know her to be a smart, pragmatic legislator who does not file legislation to simply “make a statement,” but to enact policy she believes will benefit Texas. Of course, she and I disagreed on much, but I can assure you she is a serious legislator who will put in maximum effort to get her legislation across the finish line.

The biggest corporate supporter of legalizing casino gambling is Las Vegas Sands, which owns multiple casinos across America. Last session, Sands made a strong push, spending more than $6 million on lobbying, plus at least $2 million on a statewide ad campaign, according to reporting by The Texas Tribune. But its proposed legislation never gained traction and did not make it to the floor for a vote in either chamber.

Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest opponents are the casinos in Oklahoma and Louisiana. They will lose significant revenue if casinos start appearing inside Texas borders.

The arguments in favor are — you guessed it — more revenue for the state and more jobs. No doubt these claims are factually accurate, but the true positive impact on our economy will be, if history is any judge, less than what is being promoted by either of the two organizations advocating the loudest for legalization.

While there is belief by some that legalizing gambling in an area will increase crime such as human trafficking, robbery and DUI, there is also similar data that claims to show this does not happen. The challenge with most of the studies I have read is that they were done by, or at least funded by, organizations that already have a position on gambling. Pro-gambling organizations paid for studies that, not surprisingly, showed no increase in crime; those opposed to gambling publicized studies that show the harm gambling reportedly causes in areas that have legalized it. I doubt that gambling beyond the current Texas lottery will cause the collapse of our society as some groups will surely claim, but it will also not lead to what I would consider family-friendly environments.

All of the above are really sideline issues when it comes to legalizing gambling in Texas, whether it be in person or online. The biggest challenge is garnering legislative support. In my opinion, for at least the next decade, we will not have a legislature that will take a proactive vote to legalize gambling in Texas. Gambling is a real issue in some Republican primaries, and asking a state representative or senator to vote to expand gambling automatically places some members at risk of having a well-funded opponent in his or her primary.

There is a better path for both sides. Why don’t we just let the people decide? The Legislature could pass a resolution that presents a constitutional amendment on the ballot next November, asking the voting population of our great state to make the important decisions on online sports betting and casino gambling. The wording on the amendment would need to be fair and not show bias to either side of the argument.

While I don’t have a crystal ball as to how legislative members would look at this pathway, I believe that it would be hard for any constituent to realistically argue against letting voters decide.

Up or down, this needs the direct input of the people. Any wagers on this commonsense approach actually happening?

Ron Simmons is a former Texas House representative. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.

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