On the Lege

Another Spin of the Wheel

On the Lege
Illustration By Doug Potter

Sure as shootin', another wager is in play at the Capitol to expand Texas' gambling footprint beyond the boundaries of the lottery and church bingo operations. Do we hear an amen? Or was that a harrumph? Hard to tell.

Moving right along, Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and John Carona, R-Dallas, filed an all-inclusive bill (Senate Bill 1359) last week that aims to do the impossible – satisfy the state's struggling horse-racing industry, the dog-racing business, and those swinging casino guys by letting them all have a go at legalized gambling. The bill would also reinstate gambling on Indian reservations of the Tigua, Alabama-Coushatta, and Kickapoo tribes. Should lawmakers approve what has heretofore been a lost cause, voters would be asked to decide the proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

In their announcement of the omnibus legislation last Thursday, Ellis and Carona presented their gaming proposal as a picture of economic vim and vigor, based on the findings of noted Texas economist Ray Perryman.

The bill's most promising feature is the creation of a scholarship fund to help an estimated 240,000 qualified students gain access to community colleges and public universities. A full $1 billion per year from the gaming revenue would be dedicated to the college fund. According to Perryman, casino gambling alone would create 400,000 new jobs and pump as much as $4.5 billion into state and local coffers.

"It's time for Texas to reap the economic benefits and use that revenue to help Texas students go to college," Ellis said. He and Carona both pointed out that they are not gambling men, while Carona even boasted, "I've never purchased a lottery ticket."

Big whoop, say opponents, which typically includes a bipartisan mix of Democrats, who don't relish the idea of staking education funding and other services on gambling revenue, and churchgoing conservatives, who oppose gambling (with the exception of bingo) on moral grounds. The most outspoken opponents are the far-right Texas Eagle Forum and the not-as-far-right Christian Life Commission, the lobby arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Notwithstanding the vocal opposition, Ellis said he intends to work with House members who have filed other types of gambling bills – one that would allow video-lottery terminals (slots, for short) at existing horse- and dog-racing tracks and another that would permit gambling on federally recognized American Indian lands. The Ellis-Carona bill has those areas covered as well.

The bill's major proponents, who also hail from both sides of the aisle, acknowledge that its fate is as uncertain this session as it was in past sessions. The differences this time around are the all-encompassing reach of the proposal and the relative stability of the state budget, which is still in the works. Also, casino heavyweights and race-track owners have historically tried to outdo the other to gain a competitive edge on the legislative front. Not to say that both sides are on friendlier terms this session, but the Ellis-Carona bill seeks a group-hug approach to help move the bill successfully through both chambers.

The Texas Gaming Association, a lobby group of gambling muckety-mucks, has enlisted publicity assistance from local PR operative Elizabeth Christian to add a touch of lipstick to the plan. Unfortunately, the group's Web site draws on the gambling success stories of Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss., and Shreveport-Bossier City, La., claiming a near-immediate rise in retail and tax revenues once gambling operations were approved, as well as a decrease in the number of people enrolled in public-assistance programs. This would be a good time to point out that Mississippi and Louisiana rank a respective 49th and 50th in the 2006 annual health report put out by the nonprofit United Health Foundation. The report attributes the two states' health-care ills to high poverty rates and a large number of uninsured. (Texas shares those same characteristics, yet somehow we managed to muster of a rank of 37 on the list.)

Anyway, getting back to the PR effort, we should remind readers that Christian and her husband, former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd, took up the gambling cause several years ago, when the two were enlisted to lobby city leaders on the idea of turning the banks of Waller Creek into a Vegas-style destination spot. Their selling point was that casinos would provide a healthy shot in the arm for Downtown. The city said thank you, no, and has opted for condos instead.

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