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Hold 'Em Like They Do In Texas

Few issues in Texas have been more hotly debated, and at great length, than legalized gambling. With the Galveston/Houston area situated so close to Louisiana — which, along with Nevada, is one of only two states to offer legalized casino gambling statewide — the topic hits quite literally close to home.

The Louisiana Gaming Control Board reported $193 million in monthly revenue in January, a 4.8% increase from January 2022. Lake Charles (nicknamed “Louisiana’s Playground” for a reason) was the state leader, bringing in $76.4 million, much of that from Texans’ time-honored tradition of crossing the border to visit the city’s casinos and add tourism dollars to local businesses.

Why wouldn’t we want this potential revenue for ourselves, to help our state get by and take care of our own?

Scratch-offs have no trouble getting sold in Texas. Racetrack betting is illegal on paper here, but we have a renowned horse race track in Houston (sponsored by L’Auberge Casino in Lake Charles) where betting is both allowed and expected. Slot machines are nestled in privately owned establishments all over southeast Texas, and I was surprised to find in my research that they’re perfectly legal here.

Let’s consider online sports betting — a new Wild West gambling landscape and multi-billion-dollar global industry — in our state. As recently as March, a state representative proved how easy it is for Texans to place an illegal online sports bet by demonstrating it on his own phone. Unless we assume that every Texan follows the law to the letter, this is already happening here; the fact that it’s currently not legal is merely a formality.

(Editorial disclaimer: I personally enjoy participating in free fantasy football leagues each year, strictly for the fun and camaraderie because I love football. I’ve also joined in casual sports “gambling” at several office jobs, — namely, squares with a cash buy-in — a common tradition at workplaces across the country and probably less than legal in Texas.)

From a money standpoint, the good news for our current state budget is that, according to the Texas Comptroller’s Biennial Revenue Estimate in January 2023, Texas is expected to see an unprecedented 26.3% increase in revenue available for the 2024-2025 spending cycle.

The bad news, in the words of Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, is “we cannot reasonably expect a repeat. We are unlikely to have an opportunity like this again. This budgeting session is truly a once-in-a-lifetime session.” So, what will we do for our schools and infrastructure or (in the worst-case scenario) natural-disaster recovery if our state revenue drops during the next cycle even more significantly than it’s risen? Increase Texans’ already hefty property and sales tax burden?

Speaking of increased funds, the Texas Lottery — itself a form of legalized gambling — also reported record revenues last year. Nearly $2 billion of the organization’s $8.3 billion in lottery sales is earmarked for education and veterans. That may sound like a lot of cash, but according to the Texas Tribune, the base amount of state funding for Texas schools has not increased since 2019, remaining at slightly more than $6,100 per student even as supply costs rise. Imagine how much we could do for our troubled educational system with further investment.

Gambling is not without its cons, of course. How do you avoid encouraging addiction? Unfortunately, you can’t. This is the dark side of gambling; based on a 2% national average addiction rate among gamblers, the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates approximately 600,000 Texans could develop a dysfunctional gambling habit.

Unfortunately, legal substances — some of which, like alcohol, are even celebrated in our state — are statistically more problematic for Texas residents. More than 17% of Texans over 18 binge drink at least once a month. That means more than 5 million people here abuse alcohol and it causes an average 10,647 deaths per year in our state.

Adult use of tobacco, another legal substance, remains at a rate of 25% in Texas, according to the American Lung Association; that’s 7.5 million people. And the Texas Department of Health and Human Services estimates that another 7.5 million Texans have been affected by an overdose of prescription opioid drugs, whether directly or indirectly. When you consider the statistics, 600,000 people potentially developing a gambling problem seems small compared to other addictions.

If the argument is strictly about loss of money, then we should all avoid investing in a highly volatile stock market too. $30 trillion in global losses over the past year is an awful lot to see swirling down the drain.

So, as with any addiction, the best answer is regulation of legal gambling, and behavioral therapy if/when it becomes a problem. Perhaps some of the extra funds would be well invested in addiction prevention and treatment initiatives.

Risk-taking has been woven into Texas’ DNA from the beginning. Since many Texans have shown they want the opportunity to gamble, why deny them that freedom? Let them try their luck here at home, and maybe do some good for our state’s future too.


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