LAKE CHARLES, La. (KXAN) - Through a thick morning fog, the headlights of dozens of parked cars begin clicking off in a matter of minutes.
The crowded Denny's parking lot on the eastern outskirts of Houston along Interstate 10 is a daily gathering point for hundreds of Texans looking to take a chance on something their state does not allow.
Casino gambling across the Louisiana border 100 miles away is part of what lures between $2 billion and $4 billion from Texas each year, according to various estimates. The Texas Gaming Association says that spending not only takes that money from the state's economy, it also costs the state $1.5 billion a year in tax revenue.
- See a debate between former state Sen. John Montford, who is leading an effort to allow a vote on casino gambling, and anti-gambling advocate Rob Kohler on KXAN's "In Session, In-Depth" at 8:30 a.m.
"It would help us," said Regina Jentoski, as she herded her group of retired women to the car. "We need it."
Jentoski and her friends meet at this same point at least once a year to make the high-stakes pilgrimage.
"If I break even, I'm happy," she laughed. "If I lose, I lose. I don't gamble that much, but we have a lady in the car who'd rather gamble than eat."
Jentoski's carful of gamblers follows the dozens of charter buses shuttling like-minded Texans down the highway by the hour – a stretch of road Jentoski said could use some improvements, maybe funded through gambling revenue.
A recent report by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board says, "Most of the area's customers originate from the Houston area... and would be hurt by legalized gambling in Texas."
In an exclusive, scientific KXAN/Survey USA poll of 500 people statewide, 64 percent of respondents said they have traveled to other states to gamble while living in Texas. All bordering states - Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana – have casinos.
Using tax revenue
Since casinos first came about in Louisiana in the mid-1990s, that state has spent the money it earns on things like highway construction, teacher salaries and even gambling-addiction treatment.
The latter helped fund the Louisiana Association of Compulsive Gambling, according to the group's executive director, Reece Middleton.
"Now that we've had gambling for a while, we're seeing more people with co-addictions and people in the later stages of addiction," Middleton said. "Having this service is crucial in a state where (gambling) exists."
According to the association, its help line has fielded 100,000 calls since 2000 and treated 3,000 people in its centers.
Texas casino challenges
This unfortunate side effect is one of the main concerns from casino opponents in Texas. Gambling bills presented to the state Legislature have failed consistently for at least two decades.
"I think our biggest problem is coming from the top," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who regularly sees his constituents flocking eastward. "You've got a few people in strategic positions who are blocking the ability to give the people in Texas a chance to vote on this."
Ellis said he has filed similar legislation since 1993, when first approached by then-Gov. Ann Richards – a Democrat – to "float the idea of casinos in Texas." Not surprisingly, staff members for current Gov. Rick Perry – a Republican – said he "does not support the expansion of gambling in Texas."
"I think you've got a very limited but very powerful element in a Grand (Old) Party in particular who are holding many members hostage," added Ellis, who recently filed Senate Joint Resolution 6 – the latest push for casinos in Texas.
KXAN's statewide poll showed 64 percent of Texans say they support casino gambling in the state. Among that group, political affiliation was not really a factor, as Republicans, Democrats and Independents showed their support in the 60-70 percent range.
"With all due respect, that's not my district," said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, responding to those results. "I don't know exactly last time we polled, but it was about that (percentage) against it. We have to educate that 64 percent to let them know this is not a panacea. It's a siren song, and it will bring undue suffering to our state with no economic benefit."
Deuell is vice chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, to which Ellis' bill has been referred. At this point, it is unclear whether members will actually hold a hearing to take up the item this session.
"I always think we should always listen," Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who also sits on the committee. "Yeah, have a hearing to listen to what people have to say. I'm a former judge, so I'm used to listening to whatever people would like to present and consider it. But I'm firmly in the corner of anti-expansion."
Breaking down the bill
Ellis' pitch calls for eight destination resort casinos, eight licenses for slot machines at race tracks and gaming on all three recognized Indian tribes. The state revenue raised would go toward property tax relief, student scholarships,
and compulsive gaming treatment.
The bill follows the legal rules of such expansion, too. In Texas, voters would ultimately make the final decision. Two-thirds of lawmakers would have to vote to place the measure on the November ballot. Then Texans would cast their own vote to actually change the state's Constitution and allow casinos.
The statewide survey showed 76 percent of Texans at least want the chance to vote on the idea – something at the heart of the argument among lobbyists on both sides.
"We are not asking a member of the Legislature if they are for or against gambling or gaming expansion," said John Montford from the pro-gambling group Let Texans Decide. Montford, a former state senator, sponsored the bill to legalize the lottery in Texas during his tenure at the Capitol.
"We are asking them simply to let the people of Texas decide if they are for it," he said. "(Lawmakers) can campaign for the referendum. If they are against it, they can campaign against it."
While the gambling lobby is not as prevalent this session at the Capitol, it still meets opposition, especially when lawmakers mention casinos as a way to battle recent budget problems.
"It's a trick," said Rob Kohler, a consultant with the anti-gaming Christian Life Commission. When you hear that along with these polls, I tell folks there's a couple of things you can count on every two years. You're going to have 150 House members and 31 senators, then a special interest poll that says everybody's for casino gambling. It just doesn't bear itself out."
Deuell points to economic hardships of other states with gambling. He said Texas voters recognize that and have already made their choice against casinos in the general election.
"I would say that my district's already decided," he said. "I'm very anti-gaming, and I keep getting elected by overwhelming margins. As far as I'm concerned, my district's already decided. They put me in office."
Concerns About Gambling
Deuell suggested that only the people pushing gambling legislation benefit from it, because the bad outweighs the benefit.
"We saw evidence that it really is a wash in terms of enforcement, in terms of the social detriment to families that get broken up by gambling," he said.
Just across the border from Texas in Lake Charles, Louisiana, there are currently two area casinos and another one on the way. Four law enforcement agencies handle crime in the area, which has shown a trend in the last decade.
"We've responded - just the Lake Charles Police Department - to 10,000 calls since 2000," said That's about two calls, 2.5 calls per day for service."
Those are complaints on casino properties alone – calls for service that likely would not occur otherwise.
"Those calls can range from littering to suicides and homicides," Kraus added.
The KXAN survey showed 23 percent of Texans' were most concerned with crime casinos could bring. Above that, 28 percent said gambling addiction was most troubling. Concerns like other financial problems and moral or religious beliefs made up the remainder.
Existing gambling in Texas
Keep in mind, Texas already has several forms of gaming, including the lottery, dog and horse racing, bingo and one Indian casino. The Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino is in Eagle Pass about three hours south of Austin, and it has electronic gaming, poker and bingo.
Beyond that, Ellis said Texans are actually already gaming across the state – illegally. His office reports 150,000 illegal eight-liners. They are similar to video machines but against the law when they pay out cash.
"Bringing legal casinos to Texas would help cut down on that activity," he said. "I haven't given up yet, and you have to keep trying."
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