It's a perennial question at the Capitol: Are the potential perils of casinos worth the prospect of the millions in tax revenue their proponents advertise?
The answer from lawmakers up to now, has always been no.
When the question comes up during the next legislative session, a former legislator will be among the proponents asking lawmakers to reconsider. John Montford is a former Lubbock County district attorney, state senator (he chaired the State Affairs and Finance committees at various times), chancellor of the Texas Tech University System and onetime executive with AT&T and General Motors.
Now the former Democratic officeholder is the public face of LetTexansDecide.com, a coalition of gaming companies, track operators, trade groups and others who want Texas to legalize casinos.
As they have in past legislative sessions, gambling promoters want lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment in front of voters that, if approved, would allow casinos in Texas.
Montford, who was the Senate sponsor of the Texas Lottery, has signed on to lead the effort and talked with The Texas Tribune about how Oklahoma has outsmarted Texas, the gambling debate during his time in the Legislature and why now is the time for casinos in Texas. An edited video and transcript are below.
TT: I’m curious why you’re jumping into legislation again, for one thing, and into gambling in particular.
Montford: Well, it occurred to me, you know I’ve had multiple careers that have all been very exciting, and I wrapped up with GM the first of the year. I got back to Texas, and this issue of expansion of gaming intrigued me because I drove by a few casinos on the way, and I got intrigued by what was going on. And, candidly, was somewhat — I don’t want to say horrified — but definitely shocked at the outflow of Texas money into Oklahoma in particular, spurred on by Oklahoma gaming interests. My hat’s off to them. I think they’ve outsmarted us.
TT: Did you go to the gaming people and say let’s do something, or did they come to you?
Montford: One day I started getting calls, which piqued my interest. I have a lot of friends in the education community and people are looking for non-tax revenue, things like that. But I’d say what primarily got my attention was the outflow of money into neighboring states, occasioned by Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico gaming interests.
TT: When you were chairman of finance, a lot of the problems were the same problems we have now. We kind of made more promises than we could afford to take care of. When you were looking for money then, were casinos part of the equation? What’s different now?
Montford: It was sort of sequential because when I was in the Senate, the first issue that cropped up was pari-mutuel wagering. So it’s been a succession of events.
TT: You were the sponsor of the lottery legislation. How does this set up differently? There was a similar question at the time.
Montford: As I said, we took these issues in sequence. At the time, there was a strong push for the lottery because, again, they needed more non-tax-type revenue.
I don’t think that gaming is a cure-all for our fiscal problems. I think it will help, and I’d like to see, for instance, if we develop these revenue streams to go to relief on some of the property tax obligations, or water or education, at least contribute to helping these problems we face in Texas. It’s not a cure-all, by any means, but I think it will help, and I think it will develop some steady streams of revenue.
But back when I did the lottery, it was like this, a statewide initiative, and the lottery followed pari-mutuel wagering, and I just think now Texas is ready to decide this one.
TT: Do you think the money, if Texas approved casino gaming, should be dedicated to something in particular?
Montford: Not necessarily. I think that’s a decision the Legislature needs to make. They’re on top of the budget. They need to allocate it. Obviously, you always like to think it’s going to help our education initiatives in Texas. I’m a very strong supporter of public and higher education, as well as the many private education opportunities we have. So I’d like to see more money go into these. But again, I think as Texas has evolved, we’re just ready to decide this, and I think now is the time.
TT: Who wants this to happen? Who is paying for the effort to get this done? Who is paying for the effort to stop this?
Montford: Well in my travels across Texas, I think the people of Texas want it to happen. You’ve got significant unregulated gaming going on. I mean, I’ve been gone two years, and looking at what’s going on, I can go bet my life savings, probably about 10 minutes [away] from the Capitol. There are huge unregulated gaming operations that go on out there. And my point is, why don’t we license and regulate it and benefit from some of the revenue.
The interests that are involved are multinational corporations. They are sophisticated corporations that want economic opportunity expanded in Texas. They’re very strong on compliance, and they follow the law and want to invest more money in our state.
For some of the interests outside of Texas, as well as within, I think it would be a huge economic boon. I think it’s a significant job creator. While it does invest in infrastructure, it also produces a significant number of good-paying jobs.
TT: I’m sure you remember all of the morality arguments against the lottery, against pari-mutuel betting. What do you say to those?
Montford: I’ve traveled the state on lottery, and I remember, one time, I was speaking to a combined meeting of the Rotary and Lions Club in West Texas. I asked how many people in the room supported the lottery, and only two people out of about a hundred raised their hands. And after I completed my speech, the local Catholic priest came up to me and said, "Senator, I wouldn’t be too worried about that informal poll. All the preachers in our area were in the audience." So I checked after the election, and it carried that county with about 57 percent.
So I think we’re ready for this. I think the people of Texas are smart enough to decide if they want the freedom and the independence to make these types of decisions. Goodness knows, let’s give them the opportunity here in Texas instead of sending them off to neighboring states to spend their hard-earned money.
TT: What are the mechanics of this? What are you going to try to do? Are you going to try to get a constitutional amendment and go forward?
Montford: The mechanics are very simple. We want to get a House-Senate joint resolution. We need a hundred votes in the House, we need 21 votes in the Senate to put it on the ballot, and let the people decide. We’re prepared to live with the result, but let’s get it out there and let them vote on it. Let’s lay this issue to rest once and for all.
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