Texas lawmakers weigh gambling legislation as a way to patch $1 billion pandemic deficit

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The 87th Legislature’s Senate Committee on Finance met for the first time Monday, Feb. 8 to go over the first draft of the Texas biennium budget.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, the Republican chairing the committee, started off the hearing with some good news.

“The release of the biennial revenue estimate, which showed July’s $4.6 billion shortfall estimate, [is] now projected to be a $946 million shortfall,” Nelson said.

Even with the improved estimate, the budget going forward will need to be tight in the years following the pandemic.

“It is a responsible budget that meets the essential needs of our state,” Nelson said.

Some lawmakers are gambling on casinos and gaming to help make up for that shortfall.

Over the past year, there’s also been a bigger push from Las Vegas lobbyists, including more than 50 from Las Vegas Sands.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel and State Sen. Roland Gutierrez have already filed bills aiming to allow the operation of casinos in Texas. State Sen. Royce West, a Democrat on the Senate’s finance committee, said it’s definitely a viable option.

“We need a recurring revenue source. And needless to say, when you begin to look at other states, this would be a recurring revenue source,” West explained, pointing out the federal COVID relief that might be on its way will be a one-time sum, and Texas needs more to depend on in the years to come.

The legislation isn’t a new concept, though. State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, has been filing a gaming bill for years.

“It’s been an uphill battle ever since I’ve been filing the bill since 2009,” Alvarado said.

“We have the bill being drafted now to grow file again,” Alvarado said, explaining the bill aims to put gaming on the ballot in Texas.

“I think it would pass if we had it on the ballot. And, of course, it’s not going to fix our budget issues this session, but looking ahead, it could certainly bring in new revenues,” Alvarado said.

Director of the Texas Politics Project Jim Henson said it’s expected to be met with opposition, as it has in years past.

“‘Values conservatives’ who oppose gambling in principle for moral reasons. And then, in addition to that, those who were skeptical of the social hazards that might be seen as attending gambling, gambling addiction to the kinds of the economic hardship that could result from from people that have gaming problems,” Henson explained.

But, lawmakers point to other states where the system is already established.

“If you go to Oklahoma, Louisiana, guess what license plates you see? You see Texas license plates. In order to make certain that revenue stays in the state of Texas, it makes sense to me,” West added.

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