Editorial: Will virus’ economic hit help bid to allow casinos?

For more than two decades, the Texas Legislature has received proposed legislation that would allow casino gambling in the state, and the idea has been turned down every time. The proposal once again has been offered.

The more than 1,100 bills that have been pre-filed for the 87th Legislative Session include a couple that would allow limited casino gambling in the state. With Texas struggling, like much of the world, to deal with billions in lost economic activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, might our notoriously conservative lawmakers be more receptive to an idea that could help offset those losses with an industry that traditionally is heavily taxed?

One of the sites most often mentioned for casino construction is South Padre Island. Such a facility would generate millions in annual tax and tourism revenue for the Island, the Rio Grande Valley and the state as a whole.

A growing list of advocates is pushing for casino legalization, including the owners of Las Vegas Sands, one of the world’s largest gambling conglomerates that is looking to expand into areas like Japan, New York, Brazil and — if possible — Texas. Sands has assembled a well-funded team of lobbyists to promote the idea during our legislative session, which begins Jan. 12.

“We view Texas as a worldwide destination and one of the top potential markets in the entire world,” Sands spokesman Andy Abboud said at a Dec. 8 presentation in Austin. “Texas is considered the biggest plum still waiting to be out there in the history of hospitality of gaming.”

Surveys suggest that Texas could become the third-largest betting market in the country behind California and New York, if sports betting also is allowed. Creating that market could tap an estimated $18 billion a year in revenue.

Proposed legislation would enable Texas voters to decide a proposed constitutional amendment on the issue, with a limited number of casinos that all would be within 200 miles of the Gulf Coast.

Such a band, however, would allow casinos to be built in areas such as Houston, San Antonio and Austin, as well as anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley.

A casino might even be possible at the proposed riverside entertainment and business development in downtown Brownsville, or near popular Winter Texan communities in the Donna and Mission areas.

Under the proposed legislation, Texas gambling would be supervised not by a new gaming agency, but the existing Texas Lottery Commission, which already has nearly 30 years managing state-run games and associated programs such as gambling addiction referrals.

Casino and gambling proceeds would be taxed at 18%, generating substantial revenue for their communities.

Public opinion polls indicate that 90% of Texans believe voters should be allowed to decide the issue, and that 60% would vote in favor of casinos.

All that’s left is for our lawmakers to give them the chance to make that decision. In the hard times wrought by COVID-19, we’ll see if our traditionally conservative lawmakers will choose continued prohibition or creating a source of funding for vital public services and assistance when they are most needed.