Texas lawmakers will debate two major pieces of legislation this session. The first is extending gambling in the state. The second is adding a school voucher program.
The Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission opposes both.
Baptists say gambling dollars could fund voucher program
Texas commercial casinos are currently outlawed. There’s one tribal-run casino near the border with Mexico and two limited gambling venues. Texans routinely travel to neighboring states to gamble in casinos. Sports betting is also illegal, both retail and online.
The two measures opposed by the Texas Baptists have similar characteristics. Both have been debated before at the Texas Capitol and both create a sort of red line in the sand politically. And according to the Baptists, one could be used to fund the other.
One big difference in this legislative session compared to the last is the sheer amount of money available for new ventures thanks to a $27 billion budget surplus.
John Litzer, director of public policy for the Christian Life Commission, said he is worried there will be a spending frenzy without much regard for the long-term problems the measures could cause for Texas.
Expanding gambling not sustainable, Baptists argue
Gambling will be front and center at the 88th Texas Legislature, which began on Jan. 10.
Senator Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, has already brought forth a bill to develop commercial casinos in the state. SJR 17 would allow up to nine casino licenses, four of which would permit “destination casinos” in the state’s largest cities. Alvarado’s bill also includes a retail sports betting program to get a jumpstart on licensing sportsbooks when legally allowed to do so.
The Christian Life Commission strongly opposes the expansion of gambling because it’s worried that sports betting will become legal–a form of entertainment they oppose on moral grounds. The group has been applying heavy pressure on lawmakers to oppose any extension. The commission argues that incremental changes to gambling are even more concerning than a complete reversal of all limits in one fell swoop.
Litzer says even small allowances are not sustainable.
“The challenge legislators face is making improvements that can be sustainable for the future. They have to look for permanent solutions. It can’t be just a one-time fix, working with extra money.”
Commission contends state would lose control over tribal gaming
The expansion of gaming options at the state’s tribal-run casinos is another reason the commission is against gambling measures. It says legalization of casinos and sports betting at the commercial level would also open Class III gaming (which includes sports betting) at tribal casinos. That would allow tribal casinos to have all types of gambling games and events in their establishments without oversight of local government, said Rob Kohler, a consultant of the commission.
“(If the) Class 3 veil is pierced, the right of the citizens of the state to govern gambling no longer exists.”
Baptists say voucher proposal violates separation of church and state
The second hot topic Texas Baptists oppose is a school voucher system. Lawmakers will consider allowing parents to send children to both public and private schools on the state’s dime. Those could include religious-based schools.
Both Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick campaigned on providing more “school choice” to allow parents to direct state funds toward paying for private schooling.
Essentially, the extension would allow parents to use state-funded vouchers to send their kids to the school they feel is best for their development. Any school could accept the vouchers regardless of if they are religious, private or simply a different public school.
The commission stands firmly against a school voucher program. It claims the program would take money from already struggling public schools. It would also hinder local school boards and minimize the impact of citizens’ input on public schools by redirecting state funds to private schools which are not as regulated as their public counterparts. In short, it would ask tax payers to fund a person’s right to send their children to a private school.
The commission also claims a voucher program violates the separation between church and state because parents could use state funds to send their kids to a religious-based institution. With a nod to recent school shootings, Litzer said these funds should instead go toward mental health services in schools.
Finally, the Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission believes the school voucher program would likely go hand-in-hand with the expansion of gambling in the state. The commission reasons that gambling dollars, which current legislation indicates would be paid into the Texas Permanent School Fund, would pay for the school voucher program. In this way, The Christian Life Commission sees expanded gambling as an accelerant to the expansion of a “school choice” program.
Both topics–gambling and school vouchers–will have multiple bills filed this session and Texans can rest assured that both issues will be debated hotly before the final gavel falls in may.