May 15, 2009
Poker bill dies

Last night at midnight was the first major deadline in the House. Any bill that had not been passed on second reading was officially dead for the session, though some may get reincarnated as amendments to already-approved bills. About three quarters of the 5000 bills filed in the House suffered this fate, including some high profile ones such as the concealed-carry on campus bill and, I'm sad to say, HB222, the poker bill.

A proposed constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling never made it onto the calendar. Sponsors had said they would not ask it to be set unless there were enough votes to pass. They never reached the necessary 100 votes.

The bill to legalize poker games at horse and dog tracks had a chance of getting on the calendar, but sponsor Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said he was pulling it off because Gov. Rick Perry's staff assured him the governor would veto it.

"Sometimes you flush good will if you put a dead bill out on the floor," Menendez said, explaining his decision to withdraw the measure without debate.

And with that, none of the bills that would have authorized an expansion of gambling made it through.

Their chances looked better than ever this year, with a strapped state budget and a new House speaker with interests in a San Antonio racetrack.

But in the end, lawmakers say, the expectation of federal stimulus dollars kept the state from getting desperate for money. And the major casino gambling legislation needed 100 votes in the 150-member House, a threshold that the bill's sponsors couldn't reach in such a divided chamber. And even if the poker bill had passed, Gov. Rick Perry probably would've vetoed it.

"We came into the session billions of dollars short. The stimulus pulled us out of dire straits," said Menendez, D-San Antonio. "If we were cutting school budgets and not giving teachers raises, we would see a lot more willingness."

Gambling opponents say it's easy to blame the bill's failure on a budget bailout. But they argue that the real reason gambling gets no traction session after session is because it's bad policy.

Suzii Paynter, with the Baptist General Convention's Christian Life Commission, said the promises of jobs and tax revenue that supporters make are exaggerated.

"Gaming legislation has failed because the more people look into the promises that are made, the more weaknesses they see in the proposal," Paynter said.

I think there's some merit to the argument about stimulus money having an effect. I certainly thought the gloomy budget picture at the start of the session would act as a catalyst for gambling proponents. The real test will come next session, when everyone is already expecting a huge deficit and a fight over the rainy day fund, and no stimulus package to come to the rescue. I do agree that the claims of jobs and tax revenue are overstated, but they'll likely look a lot more tempting when the alternative is deep, slashing cuts to needed programs.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 15, 2009 to Budget ballyhoo
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