Bill Murchison

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.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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