On second thought: Texas House opts not to kill lottery commission

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- The 20-year-old Texas Lottery underwent a near-death experience Tuesday as House members voted to kill its governing body before changing their minds to avoid an abrupt loss of $2.2 billion in lottery-generated state revenue.

Although the lottery would live for 12 more years in the tentatively passed legislation, the debate signaled deep moral and budgetary misgivings over the state-run gaming enterprise. It was also seen as a possible test vote against expanded gambling in Texas.

"There are some broader things to read into this vote," said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, sponsor of the bill.

Anchia's legislation would reauthorize and expand the Texas Lottery Commission under the state's Sunset process, which requires all state agencies to be periodically reviewed. Although the bill focused on the governing body - and not the games themselves - the Metroplex lawmaker said a vote against the measure would have the effect of killing the lottery and the billions it generates in revenue for Texas public schools.

The Republican-controlled House stunned lottery supporters by voting 65-81 against reauthorizing the commission.

But lawmakers reversed course several hours later, voting 110-37 to give preliminary approval after Anchia and other supporters warned that billions in education funding would be in jeopardy if the original vote stood.

Forty-five lawmakers who initially registered no shifted their votes to support the bill, including Reps. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, and Diane Patrick, R-Arlington.

Reps. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, supported the bill in both votes while six Tarrant County Republicans remained steadfastly against it - Reps. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Bill Zedler of Arlington, and Craig Goldman, Stephanie Klick and Matt Krause, all of Fort Worth.

A final vote for approval today would send the bill to the Senate.

Repealing the games

The flurry of activity exposed dissatisfaction with the lottery on a number of fronts, raising the possibility of more serious efforts in the future to repeal the games, which voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin in 1993.

Both Burnam and Patrick expressed concerns about the lottery but said they shifted their votes to avoid the loss of education funds. Both said they plan to work during the interim to find sources of revenue other than the lottery.

"I'm being forced to choose between the taxing the poor and taking care of our schoolchildren," Burnam said in a statement. "I will support continuing the lottery commission for now but I urged the members who voted to abolish it to join me next session in replacing the lottery with an equal source of revenue."

Burnam suggested the repeal of a production exemption that benefits natural gas producers who use hydraulic fracturing - better known as fracking - as a starting point for new revenue.

Patrick said she initially voted against the lottery "because I do not believe it is a reliable source of revenue for funding public schools." But, she said, "given the short amount of time we have left in the session I changed my vote to a yes because I did not think we had time to find $2.2. billion to fill the hole."

The Arlington lawmaker, a former teacher who champions education issues, said she plans to develop a plan to "to get rid of the lottery over time in a reasoned manner" without leaving "a gap in funding for the schools."

The commission - which would be expanded from three to five members with added responsibilities in Anchia's bill - administers the lottery and regulates charitable bingo activities. More than 6 million Texans played the lottery last year, Anchia said.

"It is the free will of these people to play these games," Anchia told House members. "I am not here to argue with you whether we should have gaming or not. That is not the purpose of this bill. The purpose of the bill is how we regulate the lottery and how we regulate bingo."

Fiscal jeopardy

The Dallas lawmaker said that abolishing the agency would jeopardize the $2.2 billion in biennial lottery-generated revenue that is used primarily to fund education. Since its creation, Anchia said, the lottery has raised a total of $21 billion for public schools as well as more than $3 billion for small businesses that have participated in lottery ticket sales, Anchia said.

But Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, said the lottery raises "false hope," calling it "an immoral and predatory tax on those who can least afford it."

Krause, who announced his opposition on the floor, said afterward that the lottery was originally envisioned as "a panacea for education" but said lottery-generated revenue "funds less than three days of schooling in Texas."

The purpose for which it was initiated hasn't worked," he said. "I thought Texas had a chance to take a bold step and get rid of it. At the end of the day, we fell a little short."

"What you have is the state encouraging the poor to throw money down the drain in the hope of getting rich," Zedler said. "You're more likely to get struck by lightning a couple of times than you are to win the lottery."

Turner, who led efforts in 2009 to create a lottery game that provides dedicated revenue for veterans, said the lottery is "very important for our state's budget," adding that it would have been "unfortunate" if the initial vote prevailed.

Anchia said he and other supporters reached out to nearly 40 members between votes. "It required some more education on the House floor as to the impacts of their vote," he said.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief. 512-7839-4471

Twitter @daveymontgomery

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