Why you can’t play Texas Holdem in Texas

I got an unusual e-mail the other day – This e-mail was from Brian Ashmankas, at “Repeal the Casino Deal.”  This is an organization which asks the state government of Massachusetts to repeal laws that legalized slots and casino gambling.

It was unusual because:

  1. I live in Texas and have not been to Massachusetts since I was a kid visiting my aunt and cousins.
  2. While some form of gambling is legal in Texas (Bingo halls, racetracks, and the state Lotto) casino gambling is (with a few rare exceptions like Lucky Eagle Casino based less than a mile from the US-Mexico border) already illegal in Texas.
  3. I’m an avid (and really good) poker player myself – I even once finished 12th place out of 1,570 in a WSOP side event, and I actually support legislation such as HB 292, which was proposed by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez last session.

Currently, you can’t operate an establishment that offers real-money Texas Holdem as part of its entertainment. HB 292 would legalize poker at bingo halls and racetracks (and provide oversight) as well as end the ambiguity over whether “home games” are legal in Texas.  (They are, but the law’s ambiguous enough that chipping in $5 for pizza and beer at the beginning of the night might be considered a “house rake” and land the homeowner in jail.)

With legal poker, it would cripple so called “underground” poker games. In an underground game, there is no oversight to prevent cheating, such as the crooked underground game runner in Austin who bilked tens of thousands out of players using high-tech devices.  There’s no way to prevent underground poker rooms from laundering drug money.  And of course, legal poker rooms would generate a few more jobs and just a bit more tax revenue for Texas.

Now, there are pros and cons to legalized gambling; and obviously Mr. Ashmankas and I don’t share our opinions on this.  Indeed, one of the reasons that HB 292 didn’t pass was because of resistance from “moral objections” from conservatives.  And I have no objection to legitimate moral objections.  People like Mr. Ashmankas and I should have the public debate about whether the tradeoffs of allowing legal poker rooms will result in the best net gain for the people of our respective states.

Where Mr. Ashmankas and I do agree, and agree wholeheartedly (we had a great phone conversation about this) is that it is disappointing that we have no way to know if gambling in Massachusetts is legal because MA reps felt it was the best for the state, and if casino gambling in Texas is illegal because conservatives actually had legitimate moral objections.

Or if their decisions were, in effect, “bought,” by a powerful campaign contributor.

When you filter out the non-contribution income, the conservative and liberal policy organizations, personal candidate contributions, and the candidate committees, the tenth highest contributor to political campaigns in Texas was the Chickasaw Nation, which gave $830,000 to Texas state-level candidates and elected officials.


Common sense: So rare it qualifies as a superpower.

Again, filtering out personal candidate contributions, the Chickasaw Nation is also the #1 contributor to campaigns in state races in Oklahoma. But the Chickasaw nation gave only $398,100 to candidates and elected officials in Oklahoma, where they’re based.  They gave more than twice as much money to Texas candidates and elected officials, even though they don’t operate a business there.

The Chickasaw Nation has a vested interest in keeping poker illegal in Texas. The Chickasaw nation gave $830,000 to Texas politicians. Poker is currently illegal in Texas.

My “common sense” is tingling.

Now, here’s the insidious thing.  It would be easy for me to insinuate that this is a problem of the big-bad Rick Perry, Greg Abbott, and the Texas Republicans. I’d love to be able to say that you can solve all these problems by voting straight-ticket Democrat – that only the GOP gets “paid off,” if you were, in a “just-this-side-of-legal” type of way.  But I can’t.

First, the Chickasaw nation gives money to almost every state-level official in Texas, including moderate Republicans and Democrats I know to be great, upstanding people.  Hell, even Rep. Eddie Rodriguez got a check for $2,500 from them in 2012 (though I doubt after he proposed HB 292, he’ll get one from them in 2014).

And for all I know, the moral objections to gambling from moral conservatives are completely legitimate. But really, that’s not the point.

The question to ask is not necessarily “Did the Chickasaw nation spend $830,000 to keep Texas Holdem illegal in Texas?”

The question to ask is: “Does the $830,000 that the Chickasaw nation spent affect your ability to believe that Texas Holdem is illegal in Texas for some other reason other than the campaign contributions from the Chickasaw nation?”

Democracy only works if people truly believe that we have a democracy.  No one sane would bother to vote if no one sane believes that their votes actually matter.  Our lack of real campaign finance reform has lead us to doubt the very legitimacy of our government.

From Wikipedia: Legitimacy (political) Political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular régimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential élite.

That’s why we need campaign finance reform.  This is not a Democrat vs. Republican, Left vs. Right, Good vs. Evil, Smart vs. Stupid issue.

And you may not think of campaign finance reform as the most important issue facing the state of Texas.  Certainly, Mr. Ashmankas thinks that legalized gambling is the most important issue facing his.  But this example shows that no matter what your most important issue is, campaign finance is the first issue that we must address before we can even begin to make any progresss, on any issue, on any side of the ideological spectrum, anywhere.

We have good souls who have become dependent on campaign contributions in a way that weakens democracy, and we have a state and a nation of good souls who see that dependency and assume the worst.

It is not that the politicians are born corrupt, but they have been corrupted by the constant need for campaign financing from public interests.

I’m no exception.  I’m facing an incumbent who raised $500,000 last election cycle, and without money to get the message out, I don’t have a chance in hell.  And it looks like I can kiss a big check from the Chickasaw Nation goodbye just by posting this.  So if you could, I’d appreciate it if you could kick in some money to the campaign, using the thermometer to your right.

Maybe by running on campaign finance reform in an election where money matters more than anything else I’m nothing but a long-shot.

But I’m still a better bet than the lottery.sobbing mathmatically


Updates and more information:

surveyThis video report from Josh Hinkle at KXAN provides a balanced look at legalized gambling; pointing out that there are significant drawbacks as well as possible benefits; but it is based on a poll from SurveyUSA that says that says 64% of Texans would support legalized gambling, 28% would not, with 8% undecided; a margin of error of 3.8%.

Again, the point is not that we should have casino gambling, but that we should be able to have faith in our elected representatives that they make the decision about whether to have casino gambling based on what they believe is best for Texas, not for campaign contributors.

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