Gambling Debate Returns to Capitol

With every legislative session comes a study on the economic benefits of slot machines at race tracks

If Texas' horse tracks could also have casino slot machines – a concept known as "racinos" – the state could reap billions in economic activity and tax revenue, according to a study commissioned by racetrack owners. Texas has casinos coming to three Indian reservations and has had legal betting at race tracks since the days of former Gov. Ann Richards – but the two gambling opportunities must remain separate under Texas law. Change that, says track-owners group Texans for Economic Prosperity, and a sizable chunk of the $2.8 billion that Texans currently spend gambling out of state would stay here. Throw in associated expenditures – hotels, dining, shopping, plus the expenditures those businesses would make to meet demand – and the total economic impact could be $6.8 billion, says the study, conducted by Austin economist John Hock­en­yos. That could mean 53,000 permanent jobs, Hockenyos says, and another $981 million in state tax revenue (a figure he says factors in lost sales taxes and lost lottery proceeds due to gambling expenditures).

Of course, gambling can always expect opposition in the Texas Legislature: Just last week, a pastor giving the invocation at a House session began, "We witness the weaknesses of individuals seeking wealth through gambling ..." – which might be seen as an indirect slap at new House Speaker Joe Straus, whose family has gambling interests. Asked if his study factored in increased costs for programs to help gambling addicts, Hock­en­­yos said, "No, that would be outside my field of expertise." But, he argued, Texans who leave the state to gamble "are bringing those problems home anyway."

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