Gambling and the dereliction of political duty

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Mar 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Word arrives, via the Austin American-Statesman, that legislative support is gathering for the legalization of gambling in Texas.

 A few of us, on hearing this, made the kind of noises appropriate to the discovery that instead of a nice piece of rare rib eye, one has taken down the hatch a hunk of gristle. Texas, the new Nevada? It seems hard to imagine, but so does the power of the gambling lobby in a time of straitened state budgets. Today, all but three states are host to some form of gambling, whether it's casinos or just a lottery.

 Says one Texas lawmaker, Allan Ritter of Nederland: "Society has changed. A lot of people view [gambling] as entertainment, no different than going to a picture."

 A little more expensive than going to a picture, wouldn't the gentleman acknowledge? At how many movie multiplexes do you lose substantial sums of money or acquire addictions hard to kick without professional intervention?

 The moral -- shall we say -- loosenings of the past few decades have made it possible for state lawmakers to talk this way. Just good fun -- that's what we're all here for. Have at it, folks! The chink in that reasoning is a rather large one -- namely, the motives of the lawmakers who push their constituents, or allow themselves to be pushed by well-financed gaming interests, toward all-out legalization. The long and the short of it is, these guys, these lawmakers, want our money.

 Why do they want it? Because signing up their constituents for casino work saves the trouble of identifying and making hard decisions about how to balance revenues and expenditures.

 Texas' Legislature is engaged in reforming a school finance system radically dependent on local property taxes and about to be declared unconstitutional. Big property tax cuts must be forthcoming. But how to replace the lost loot, estimated at $3 billion to $5 billion? Business taxes? That's one approach, though not one that business especially enjoys. An income tax? Nobody down in Austin kids himself -- at least not many do -- that Texans are going to stand for that kind of confiscation.

 Ah. What about gambling? That's what several revenue-raising ideas compass -- especially in the form of casinos or video lottery terminals. (Texas already has a state lottery and racetrack betting.) Nearly 200 gambling lobbyists are working on the assumption that down in Austin their hour has come. They'll betcha, in fact. Name your odds.

 You don't find political dereliction in much more virulent forms than that of legislation designed to press gamblers into state service. The idea is, you merely tax the casinos or the lottery terminals, which in turn derive the money to be handed over from, well, not the winnings of their customers, but rather the losings. We fling wide open the casino doors and trust the suckers to start losing big time. Of course for a good cause -- that of financing state government. No doubt the house will be happy to accommodate as many as care to squeeze in.

 That's what it comes down to: The state wants you to lose. In fact, it begs you to lose. What about all those shoes to be bought for poor children, those teacher salaries that need beefing up? "Teacher needs a raise!" you're to holler as you fling the dice, hoping, if you're a good Texan, that your roll comes up snake eyes. All because -- if it ever happens, I mean -- your lawmaker was loath to do the heavy-lifting involved in maintaining prosperity through sound economic policy.

 Not yet has Texas arrived at that stage where corruption of manners becomes a crucial underpinning of the people's government. I don't think we'll do gambling this year, nor probably next legislative session. After that, who knows? A word to the financially prudent should suffice anyway.

 Keep your eye on those guys who liken casinos to movie theaters. There's a reason for so suave and deceitful a comparison -- a big-time reason.