For a dozen years, John Montford was a powerful force in the Texas Senate. He subsequently did a stint as chancellor of the Texas Tech University System before moving on to the private sector, where he served as an executive at AT&T and GM. Now, he's found himself a new role as the public face of the renewed push for casinos in Texas.
Montford, who sponsored legislation establishing the Texas Lottery in the early '90s, gave an interview to the Texas Tribune about the case for legalized gambling.
His own interest, he told the Tribune, was piqued early this year when he returned home after his stint with GM.
"I got back to Texas, and this issue of expansion of gaming intrigued me because I drove by a few casinos on the way, and I got intrigued by what was going on," Montford said. "And, candidly, [I] was somewhat -- I don't want to say horrified -- but definitely shocked at the outflow of Texas money into Oklahoma in particular, spurred on by Oklahoma gaming interests. My hat's off to them. I think they've outsmarted us."
Montford wants to keep money inside the state that could be used for property tax relief, the development of water resources and education. The website for Let Texans Decide, the group Montford is representing, describes the potential benefits in great detail, predicting the creation of 75,000 jobs, $8.5 billion in economic activity and an extra billion in tax revenue.
Of course, Let Texans Decide isn't exactly a philanthropic organization. Montford describes his backers as "sophisticated corporations that want economic opportunity expanded to Texas." In other words, some combination of gaming companies, race track operators and affiliated interests. Nor is this the first time the idea has surfaced. All of 18 months ago, several legislators, with the support of the gaming industry, proposed gambling as a way to pad an emaciated budget without raising taxes.
Rob Kohler, a longtime gambling opponent who lobbies on behalf of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, thinks the current effort will fail just as its predecessors have. Despite proponents' claims, he doesn't think most residents support the effort and he thinks the proposal, which requires a joint House-Senate resolution to be put on the ballot, will be dead on arrival in the Legislature.
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"There's a tremendous amount of new members coming into House, there are very conservative members moving into Senate," Kohler said. "The idea that somehow or another there's going to be a will in the House" is unrealistic.
But Let Texans Decide spokesman Mike Lavigne said this time is different. Previous efforts have been hampered by infighting between operators who want casinos and race track interests that want slots. Several major players in the gambling industry have also recently entered the state, with Penn Gaming buying a stake at Sam Houston Race Park, Pinnacle Entertainment acquiring part of Retama Park near San Antonio and the Chickasaw Nation's purchase of Lone Star Park.
"This time we have a group of experienced operators from around the country that have invested heavily in Texas and they're going to be united," Lavigne said.
What, exactly, a final proposal will look like will be up to legislators, but Let Texans Decide will certainly offer recommendations. So will Kohler, who's gearing up up for another fight. Not that the last one ever really stopped.