THE CASINO – Here I am again at the poker table surrounded by the usual suspects. There’s Frisco Fats and Seagoville Slim. Hiding behind his dark glasses is the evil chain-smoking Phat Duc. Lady Lucky is here, as is Count Simon von Turmoil III. This is a gambling casino just east of Texas, actually so “just east” that the décor is Texas Tacky, complete with shops selling Aggie T-shirts and Hook ‘Em Horns caps. The cafe’s menu features Texas chili. Most of the cars in the parking lot brag that they are from the Lone Star State. It’s the same in all the casinos surrounding Texas. They know their market.
“What percentage of your customers is from Texas?” I ask the clerk checking my driver’s license to make sure I’m 21. “About 90 percent,” she says. This brings up the biennial question to our Texas Legislature. Why can’t Texans gamble? Why are we shipping so much money across the border? The obvious answer is that our state government doesn’t need any more money. We’re awash in cash. Our schools’ driver’s ed classes have valet parking. Most high school cafeterias have a sommelier. So let’s look at the situation once more, remembering the former mayor of San Diego, the Speaker of the Texas House and Jack Abramoff.
In this session of the Legislature, proponents of gambling – or “gaming” as they like to call it – are again trying to get some kind of gaming in Texas. Proposals vary from Las Vegas-style casinos with hotels and 45 restaurants, to “racinos” (racetracks with slot machines) to Indian-owned casinos. A group called Let Texans Decide simply wants a referendum on the matter. To allow casino gambling in Texas takes a constitutional amendment (the current constitution prohibits it) with two-thirds approval in both houses of the Legislature and a state-wide yes vote by us.
The pro-gambling group says that a recent survey shows 85 percent of the state’s registered voters prefer the right to choose. That does not mean the voters want gambling, just the right to say whether or not they want it. Interestingly, the backers say the poll shows support from members of all political parties. More men are for it than women. Houston had the highest proportion of registered voters (85 percent) favoring a choice, while West Texas saw less than three-quarters (74 percent) willing to vote. Let Texans Decide has consistently claimed that Texas is hemorrhages $2.5 billion in gambling revenue lost annually to casinos in neighboring states, except when they say the amount lost is $4 billion. Just how anyone knows this is a mystery to me.
We must not claim that Texans don’t gamble. We do. In 1991, voters approved a constitutional amendment that created the Texas Lottery Commission. In 1987, voters agreed to allow betting on horse and dog racing. Bingo is legal on a local-option basis. And, as noted above, we go to casinos all the time, just not in Texas. Actually, according to the latest poll, in 2007, over 2.6 million Texans visited Las Vegas spending a total of $3.8 billion.
Closer to home, Oklahoma has 108 casinos; well over 20 of these facilities are within three hours of downtown Dallas. Those casinos generated $3.21 billion in revenue in 2009, the vast majority of the money came from Texans. WinStar World Casino is located just across the Texas-Oklahoma border. It is the fifth largest casino in the world. More than 90 percent of the casino’s customers are Texans.
To our east, Louisiana has 21 casinos, and most of these are along the Texas border. The Lake Charles market alone accounted for $482.4 million in revenue in its latest report. Most of this area’s customers originate from the Houston area, and, like Shreveport-Bossier, would be hurt by legalized gambling in Texas. (That’s when Jack Abramoff got involved.) New Mexico has a total of 27 casinos, five of which are racinos. The New Mexican facilities accounted for $1.03 billion in revenue at last count. The five racinos brought in close to $250 million in gaming revenue, almost entirely from Texans.
Now we must look at the other side. Maureen O’Connor, former mayor of San Diego, Calif., lost more than $1 billion playing video poker, raiding a charity foundation of $2 million to feed her gambling habit. Here in Texas, the pro-gambling bills being pushed in the Legislature have traditionally been a mess. Supporters can’t get together to present a single message. Horse track owners, casino supporters and Indian leaders can’t agree. Even if the lawmakers wanted to support the movement, which movement?
Supporters of gambling say racinos “would bring 75,000 jobs and $8.5 billion in economic growth statewide, would boost the horse industry and could generate $1 billion annually in tax revenue.” Remember that backers of pari-mutuel wagering promised it would generate thousands of jobs and lots of tax revenue. Didn’t happen. The state lottery did not solve education funding problems as promised. Another drawback: three prominent allies of Republican Texas House Speaker Joe Straus were defeated in their re-election bids by anti-gaming conservatives. Straus is considered a moderate who supports expanded gaming. His family owned majority interest in the Retama Park racetrack near San Antonio. It was partially acquired by the owners of a casino in Lake Charles, L’Auberge du Lac (French for “soak the Texans”), for $22.8 million, although his family still owns a minority stake.
Back here at the casino, I notice that there are lots of Anglos and Asians, some blacks but few Hispanics. What do they know that we don’t? No matter the garb, wear sneakers. You walk a lot, unless you use a walker, wheelchair or Lark, and don’t trip over the oxygen bottles. But I think it’s nice that the AARPers can have a little safe fun. Who cares? At the high-stakes poker table, Phat Duc looks at Lady Lucky, smiles, then turns to me and says, “I’m a little dry here, boy. Get me a refill.” I have a gambling problem: I can’t win.
Aces Ashby is at firstname.lastname@example.org