The Huckster State?

Texas’ 79th Legislature needs to find several billion dollars to the make the budget balance. For this reason some believe that expanded gambling has some chance of passing during this session. One gambling lobbyist gleefully estimates they’ll be $3 billion to $5 billion short. And you can bet he has a solution for us.

Other sources of revenue have something to recommend them. They are either reasonably predictable or grow with the economy or tax the people who use a particular service or have some understandable connection with the proposed use for the money. Gambling has none of these virtues. It only sounds like something for nothing?both to the gamblers and to lawmakers who fear having their names attached to tax increases.

We should have some reason for the things we initiate. Once we expand gambling in Texas, we’ll add just enough jobs and infrastructure to intimidate any unringing of the bell. Regardless of the fallout, we are unlikely to ban gambling once we’ve started. Consider the emotional hooks already used by those who want to put video slots at existing horse and dog tracks in the state. Now we are supposed to put thousands of slots in these facilities to prop up the horse and dog breeding industry. These tracks, by the way, were the easy fix of another budget cycle. Once we commit we’ll have to live with the results. This issue has a lot of faces, most of them ugly.

* Morality — The focus on money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some will scoff at this idea but it is observable. Those who can’t handle a few thousand dollars responsibly are not usually better at handling millions. Greed, immaturity, and materialism are only magnified when the stakes are raised. Stories abound of those who started poor, though married and employed, before winning big jackpots. A few (very few) years later, they’re alone, jobless, and worse off financially than before the big score. It’s hard to imagine a positive character trait encouraged by getting a big pile of cash you didn’t earn.

* Compassion — As a winner, your wealth must be built on the backs of those who didn’t win. Gambling is not based on the production of something or tied to the growth of our economy, it is parasitical. Demographically, gamblers are the poorest and least-educated of your neighbors. If you win, you’re the beneficiary of a system that preys on the least competent among us. Odds are this includes you. As a state, we would be forced to root against our fellow citizens so we won’t have to pay as much for state services.

* Jobs — The experience of other states is that the jobs created by gambling establishments are low-paying jobs that run out the better jobs. This creates more problems than it solves. Families that might have otherwise had a decent manufacturing job now work in the service industry, and thus need various types of public assistance to get by.

* Regressive taxation — No funding problems are solved in Texas if people don’t lose a lot of money. The people who need to keep their money are the ones who are more likely to lose it. People make their own decisions but it is wicked for our state to encourage self-destructive behavior.

* Precedent — Currently there are three federally recognized Indian tribes in Texas. Many others wait in wings to establish a claim to lands their ancestors occupied.

Twenty states are facing this very challenge and many claims have establishing a casino as their real goal. If expanded forms of gambling are legalized in Texas, they will also be legal on the land owned by Indian tribes (including those who may make future claims). These casinos will have all the negatives of other forms of gambling but may also be exempt from state taxation. So we could be living next door to one of these cultural oases without even the imagined benefits to our community.

* Social costs — By one estimate the strain on public services will at least match any new revenue. Ten percent of gamblers do more than half the gambling. Those people have jobs, families, obligations, and so on. If Texas needs these unhappy few to cover half our budget shortfall, we’re going to have to provide for their families. We’re going to have to live with their shoddy performance at work. We’ll need to send the police to answer domestic disturbances at their homes. Our courts will need to help them with their personal bankruptcies. Their creditors will need to eat the losses from unpaid debt. As a bonus, we also get to deal with increased community infrastructure needs, the cost of litigation when the gambling industry tries to expand its holdings or avoid paying taxes, and the declining revenue available to already existing businesses. I don’t see any of these predictable costs included in blue sky projections of state revenue from gambling. How naïve to expect we’ll get something for nothing.

* Poor return — I’m no fan of the state lottery but the money our state would realize from slots will be more hard-won than that from the lottery. One projection is that our citizens need to lose seven times more money to slots than they do to lottery tickets for the state to realize the same revenue.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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