Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke is one of the only Texas politicians running for office to promote legal gambling. Lately, though, he has set it aside it in favor of more idealistic talking points.
Gambling and how legalizing it would help cure many of the state’s ills was a main theme when O’Rourke kicked off his campaign in early spring. So far, he is the only gubernatorial candidate to openly campaign for legal gaming.
Since spring, his rhetoric has focused on other hot-button issues. He now plays to Texans’ “anger” and “deep drive” for change.
O’Rourke has never played down nor apologized for his intensity. As the gubernatorial race heats up, his political rhetoric has focused on the idea that Texas has reached a “now-or-never moment.” Whether gun control, abortion rights, or voting rights for black and brown Texans, he has championed them to “save or restore our democracy.”
So, has O’Rourke tabled legal gambling for a political reason, or is there a place for it in his campaign strategy?
O’Rourke sees Texas as the ‘epicenter’ of a historical moment
In a recent interview on the Pod Save America podcast, O’Rourke stated:
“Texas is the epicenter of it all. Win it and it forever changes what is possible, and it protects our democracy.”
He was speaking in the context of voting rights denied to black and brown voters, new anti-abortion laws in the state, gun safety, and other hot-button social issues. He described the fight to save and preserve Texan lives as a monumental mission.
Gambling revenue, Texas casinos and the need to regulate illegal game rooms were never mentioned in the discussion. This is likely because at the core of O’Rourke’s platform is a need to historicize the moment and make heroes of the voters in this election.
“History books written decades from now will illustrate that this is a defining moment of truth for us to either save or restore this democracy or lose it forever.”
Seen in this context, legal gambling is hardly a democracy-defining issue. The state could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling revenue to ease financial burdens of all Texans. Even so, O’Rourke must figure the issue would delegitimize his other highly-idealistic political positions.
Even among legal gambling proponents, there’s an acknowledgement of the moral ambiguity of legalizing it. Indeed, most states pushing for legalization put heavy emphasis on responsible gaming practices.
In short, there is a risk-reward calculus to gambling legalization that must be handled carefully. It’s a data-driven discussion, usually free from pathos and gravitas. That’s not the current temperament of O’Rourke’s rhetoric.
But maybe it should be.
Gambling could aid rural Texans’ woes
One of O’Rourke’s attributes as a candidate is that he gets around. When running for US Senate in 2020, he visited all 254 counties in the state.
When he tours smaller counties, O’Rourke focuses on the issues facing small-town Texans. They include economic prosperity, job growth and community development. Here, his rhetoric becomes less idealistic and more prosecutorial toward Gov. Greg Abbott.
In the same Pod Save America interview, he explained his twofold approach in reaching out to small-town voters.
First, it’s “write no one off, take no one for granted.” His hope is that Texans will see him investing in communities that get overlooked on the campaign trail.
Second, show all Texans that “this is Greg Abbott’s Texas.” And by “this” he means the inadequate electrical grid, fear of sending children to school, job loss, reckless gun laws and ballooning property taxes.
In this context, legal gambling could provide some meaningful answers.
Property taxes and education
For instance, property taxes have cost many Texans their homes and even priced them out of their communities. O’Rourke suggested gaming revenue as a way to offset property taxes which he claims ballooned under Abbott’s watch.
How would that work?
In Texas, property taxes are taxed locally. The state doesn’t keep any records of property or home values. Local agencies tax property to fund many programs, but most significantly, schools. More than half of all property taxes go to schools, and schools get more than half of their funding through property taxes
The remainder of school funding comes from state and federal funds. If gambling revenue were funneled into a state general fund, that could supplement the state’s current school funding budget and offset property taxes. In fact, this tax structure is part of Sen. Carol Alvarado’s current legal gambling resolution, SJR 49, which didn’t make it out of committee in 2021.
Job creation and preservation
Job loss and job growth in rural Texas have also come up regularly in O’Rourke’s town halls.
Legalized gambling presents a viable answer here as well. Isolated communities are worn out by supply chain shortages and diminished job opportunities.
Legalizing Texas casinos in four metro areas (Austin, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio) requires land development commitments of between $1 to $2 billion for each area. This would boost Texas construction and engineering jobs.
They would be funded by private investors, provide work to thousands of Texans and have no accompanying tax burden.
Further, four Texas casino resorts would provide stable employment for roughly 10,000 Texans. Around 2,700 residents currently commute over 100 miles a day to work at casinos in Oklahoma and Louisiana. Bringing these jobs back to Texas and creating many others would benefit Texas for decades.
O’Rourke victory could be win for legal gambling
Should O’Rourke prevail by hammering home the “save the democracy” rhetoric, legal gambling might gain some momentum in the future.
On the pother hand, if O’Rourke wins over voters who feel jilted and unsafe in Abbott’s Texas, legal gambling could take a more prominent role moving forward.
It will be interesting to see which approach O’Rourke takes, not to mention how exciting it would be if it’s a winning strategy.