Thursday, February 24, 2005

A look into the gambling squabble

Is Democrat Sylvester Turner simply covering for conservatives who are scared of their constituents? Is gambling a sound fiscal policy for the state? Would the state be preying on the weak? All of these questions have been posed over the past few weeks and there's more to come as this session heats up.

Freshman Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) said it best: "This item is the one on which we [Dem's] have the most leverage because a lot of Republicans want this bill – but they don't want to have to vote for it." To clarify, this is the only issue that Democrats have leverage on this session. Maybe tuition re-regulation, if they're lucky.

To start, it's always interesting to see when Republicans don't blindly support job creation and more streams of revenue -- which is of course the main reasons why some legislators are touting expanded gambling across the state. There's mounting GOP opposition to slot machines and Vegas-style gambling in Texas, based solely on moral grounds. An intern for Charlie Howard (R-Sugar Land) wrote an op-ed for today's Daily Texan that read like an appeal to progressives to extend opposition across the aisle to combat the bi-partisan support behind this. Like I said - it's a squabble.

On Tuesday, church goers appealed to lawmakers to stop Turner's bill, HB 897, from going any further, reports the Brownsville Herald. They claimed that expanded gambling would "prey on the poorest, least educated and minority Texans." They, with other opponents of this measure, cited figures recently published by the Texas Lottery Commission that in 2003,

People earning <$20,000 a year spent $75.50 a month on lottery games;
Those who earned between $20,000-$30,000 yearly spent $106 per month;
Those who earned between $76,000-$100,000 a year spent <$29 a month on the lottery.

Then there's the correlation that slot machines (well in 21st Century terms, "Video Lottery Terminals" or "VLTs") are the "crack cocaine" of gambling since they're addictive and prey off the poor.

Not only are many conservatives against this bill, so are liberal Democrats. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) is one of the staunchest opponents of expanded gambling. The Austin Chronicle reports that gambling opponents are "more motivated by the state's own statistics that show direct links between high lottery sales and low-income neighborhoods, yet another way of taxing the poor. [Former Lottery Commission consultant Jim] Kohler has compiled a 'Top 10' lottery sales list by House district, and No. 1 just happens to be Coleman's 147th."

However, gambling proponents look to the $1 billion a year supposedly dropped each year by Texans who gamble in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. The word on the street is that citizens of those states are actively lobbying the Texas Legislature to defeat this measure, citing the potential loss of funds since Texans would prefer to stay close to home to gamble.

And one final push is coming from Mike Toomey, Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff until five months ago, "directing virtually every aspect of state government." (reports the DMN) He's now a highly paid lobbyist who's primarily fighting for expanded gambling in Texas. "This [legislation] gives them a billion dollars for schools and to lower property taxes," Toomey told a group of horse owners, breeders, and trainers a few months back, the AusChron reported.

It's true that gambling would make money that could go to education. In the first year, proponents claim, the state could gain $1.2 billion - with VLTs installed at race tracks and Indian reservations and the Astrodome being an around-the-clock gambling center. However, Howard's unpaid intern points out, "In 1986, the racing industry persuaded the Legislature to approve pari-mutuel betting on horse and dog races. Twenty years later, the promised contribution to the state budget has yet to appear."

State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) says, Public education "really is the Number 1 priority in my district. How we come up with the money seems to be important, but less important." Those words ring true for top GOP leadership: although David Dewhurst will likely oppose this measure, neither Rick Perry nor Tom Craddick will oppose this measure. But will deciding on this type of funding for public education be a wedge issue in a session where everyone's pushing bi-partisanship to solve...public education?

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