AP NEWS

County vote on gambling is a correct first step

February 22, 2019

Legalized gambling has been talked about for a long time in Jefferson County, but for the first time there’s a new wrinkle to the debate. County commissioners will let residents vote in November for or against a proposal to allow certain kinds of gaming here if it becomes legal in the state.

That’s commendable, and it’s not the move some residents might expect from the three Republican members of the commissioners court — Judge Jeff Branick and commissioners Eddie Arnold and Brent Weaver. The Texas GOP has been historically averse to gambling in most forms, and Branick even said he’s “not a big fan.” The other two commissioners, Michael Sinegal and Everette “Bo” Alfred, both Democrats, were not at the meeting.

But letting people vote on a controversial issue is a concept that both parties should support more often. This will be a nonbinding referendum, simply a test of how much interest — or lack of it — legalized gambling has in the county. If it doesn’t garner enough support — or gets more opposition — the door would be pretty much slammed shut here.

This is the second legislative session in which state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, has tried to get his colleagues in the House and Senate to expand the forms of legalized gambling in Texas. He didn’t succeed in 2017, and the odds against him are steep in this session as well.

But Deshotel is linking the issue to a glaring concern for all coastal counties — the need for more affordable windstorm insurance as protection against hurricanes. That problem has been getting worse every year, and the Legislature has done little to address it.

Deshotel’s bill would devote a portion of the tax proceeds from legalized gambling to reduce premiums offered by the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. That’s the insurer of last resort for coastal residents who can’t get private coverage, which is most of them.

Few other people in Austin are suggesting ways to reduce those premiums, and if anything will provide traction for Deshotel’s bill, this is it. His bill in 2017 would have just directed tax revenues to the state’s general fund, and the change this year is a smart attempt to break the deadlock.

Gambling isn’t a panacea for Jefferson County or any part of Texas. But it’s already legal in some forms (the state lottery and betting on horse races) and it’s valid to ask whether it should be expanded. Plenty of Texans go to Louisiana to gamble there. Perhaps more of them — and their money — could be given a reason to stay in Texas.