Handicapping Slots for Tots

The pols and the lobby shuffle the deck on gambling 'for education'

Critics accuse state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-
Houston, of providing cover for Republicans on the 
gambling bill.
Critics accuse state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D- Houston, of providing cover for Republicans on the gambling bill. (Photo By John Anderson)

No amount of anti-gambling railing from state GOP chairwoman Tina Benkiser can convince Rep. Garnet Coleman that Republicans aren't driving the gambling issue this session.

In fact, the Houston Democrat is just cynical enough to believe that Benkiser is making such a big fuss over the slot machine bill filed last week to dispel suspicions that the bill's author, Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, is actually working in cahoots with the GOP leadership. Benkiser histrionically lambasted Turner's bill, calling it "a corrupt idea from a Democrat lawmaker promising free money but delivering only suffering and despair to Texas families."

Coleman is unimpressed by Benkiser's outrage. "I think [Benkiser's statement] was orchestrated to give Sylvester Turner and the Republicans cover," he said.

Coleman isn't alone. With Republicans in charge, gambling forces are inclined to place their lobbying bets on GOP lawmakers. Gov. Rick Perry, for prominent example, received more than half a million dollars from gambling-related interests between 2000 and 2004, according to Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that tracks campaign finance filings. In turn, Perry floated a slot machine proposal as a component to his plan to fix the school-funding crisis during last spring's special session. But the gambling idea foundered on the rocks of moral and financial opposition, even before his overall education plan failed. Perry has since tried to distance himself from the "G" word as he prepares for a re-election campaign targeting the same conservative Christian base that helped kill his slot machine proposal.

In a similar vein, a prevailing sentiment holds that Republicans have put their money on Turner, a Democrat, to move the gambling bill forward. "They had to find a Democrat," said Coleman, "and they found one of their favorite Democrats in Sylvester Turner." Since filing HB 897, Turner has spent more time denying that he acted on behalf of Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick than he has defending the bill itself. Since being appointed speaker pro tem last session (reappointed this year), Turner has become a Craddick ally on many issues, not exactly endearing himself to fellow Democrats. Turner did not join the Ardmore exile in 2003, and he has tried to walk a tightrope between the GOP leadership and his otherwise mainstream Democratic agenda. (And it's fair to say that many other Dems see gambling revenues as one potential source of education funding.)

Turner's proposal would allow the installation of so-called Video Lottery Terminals, or VLTs, at horse and greyhound racetracks and Indian reservations, and would allow for one VLT center in each of nine regions across the state, including Central Texas. The VLTs would be expected to generate an estimated $1.2 billion for state education funding (an estimate subject to much dispute), and would thereby free additional state money for the social service needs of children and seniors, Turner said. Turner told reporters that he's not pro-gambling, but that he sought counsel from his pastor, who advised him to do what's best for those in need.

Other supporters have fewer scruples. A well-funded lobby headed by former Perry Chief of Staff Mike Toomey is hard at work pushing the slots. According to an online report in a trade publication, Thoroughbred Times, Toomey provided a legislative briefing in late January to horse owners, breeders, and trainers who support the slot machine measure. "This [legislation] gives them a billion dollars for schools and to lower property taxes," Toomey told the industry group of the bill that was then three weeks away from filing. "Just give the people of Texas the right to vote on this. The only way we win is if there's grassroots pressure from you."

But not all gambling interests respond favorably to Turner's bill. Since the legislation would still exclude the Las Vegas-style casino forces angling to break into the Texas market, big casino operators like Harrah's, Boyd, and R.D. Hubbard (represented by an equally formidable army of Capitol lobbyists) are just as opposed to the VLT bill as is the Baptist General Convention. If they get their way, Turner's bill would undergo a massive rewrite or be replaced entirely, possibly by one filed by South Texas Rep. Kino Flores, who has been trying to bring casinos to the Valley for years. Turner's bill is also drawing quiet but stiff opposition from the state of Louisiana (with its own lobbying casino cabal), which stands to lose millions from the droves of Texans who go east to play the slots.

Perhaps the best argument against Turner's bill can be found in a recent study by the Texas Lottery Commission, which confirms that the people who can least afford to play are the ones who spend the greatest share of their income on lottery tickets. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, is all too familiar with this pattern, since his district of east and southeast Austin and Travis Co. has the highest lottery activity in the Austin area. That's why Rodriguez opposed Perry's gambling bill in the special session and stands against any similar measure to come forward this session – particularly if it's sold as a revenue source for schools.

Gambling opponents may have their best weapon in Rob Kohler, a private consultant who worked for 12 years in various capacities at the Lottery Commission. Kohler comes armed with grim statistics that bear out claims of gambling's ill effects on low-income and minority communities. "It's not a moral issue for me," said Kohler, who also runs the nonprofit Campaign for Common Sense & Sound Public Policy, a nonprofit group opposed to the expansion of gambling in Texas. "They [pro-gambling forces] try to pigeonhole the opposition as religious opponents." Kohler said he's 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. Kohler has compiled a "Top 10" lottery sales list by House district, and No. 1 just happens to be Coleman's 147th.

On the other hand, House Democrats – without much stroke on most Republican-dominated votes – see some rare leveraging opportunities in HB 897, because with the GOP majority split on the issue, their votes could make the difference. The funding wish list includes pay increases for teachers or a full restoration of the 2003 funding cuts to the Children's Health Insurance Program. "We need to think very carefully how we act on this one," said freshman Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin. "This item is the one on which we have the most leverage because a lot of Republicans want this bill – but they don't want to have to vote for it." end story

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