Texans Support Expanded Gambling

With new leadership about to take control in the Texas legislature in more than a decade, pro-gaming supporters hope to stem the loss of more than $4 billion Texans spend gambling in neighboring states. Rep. Allen Fletcher (l.) and Let Texans Decide estimate casinos at the state’s horseracing tracks could generate $8.5 billion in economic growth and add up to 75,000 jobs.

In 2012, the pro-gambling group Let Texans Decide lobbied for a referendum during the November 2013 election. But that never happened, and Texas lawmakers didn’t vote on the issue. But Let Texans Decide believes the issue has a chance with new leadership about to take control of the legislature for the first time in more than a decade.

State Rep. Allen Fletcher said straw polls indicate the majority of Texans would support a referendum. “We’ve never had the opportunity, as legislators in the state of Texas, to cast a vote allowing the people of Texas to vote. I’ve heard many times that people have said they want this in our area, and I’ve always said it’s your decision. If I get the opportunity to put it on the ballot, I will.”

Currently, Texans spend about $4.37 billion a year on gambling in neighboring states including Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana. About $3.2 billion was spent on gambling, with the rest going toward restaurants, hotels and gas.

The Texas horseracing industry especially would benefit from expanded gambling, said Andrea Young, chief executive officer at Sam Houston Race Park. Young said Sam Houston grew every year until 2002, when Delta Downs racino opened in Vinton, Louisiana. She said breeders are leaving Texas in favor of states that offer higher purses and allow casino gambling. “How can we compete with surrounding states, where the horses can compete for two to three times the amount of money in Louisiana or Oklahoma? Absent any new revenue, the way we were going to do that was cutting our supply, allowing us to have more revenue to spread over shorter times,” Young said.

Oklahoma’s horse industry has grown, bringing in $3.6 billion to the state since 2012. Whereas in Texas, breeders registered 300 foals eligible for horseracing in 2013, compared to more than 4,000 at its peak. A 2011 study by the Texas Racing Commission indicated attendance at Texas racetracks has declined by 12 percent, wagers dropped by 23 percent and available purse revenue statewide decreased in the five years preceding the study.

Let Texans Decide estimated casinos at racetracks could generate $8.5 billion in economic growth and add up to 75,000 jobs statewide.

Opponents of expanded gambling include the conservative group Empower Texans and Texans Against Gambling, which claim gambling contributes to crime and social problems.

Still, Young said, “Every single poll we do shows Texans support a referendum”—specifically, she said, 80 percent support a referendum and 64 percent support expanded gaming.