By Will Weissert
AUSTIN — The Texas House cast a shocking vote on Tuesday to potentially dismantle the state lottery — only to reverse itself after a few frantic hours.
House Bill 2197 began as a seemingly routine proposal to continue the operations of the Texas Lottery Commission until September 2025.
But opposition mounted after tea party lawmakers called the lottery a de-facto tax on the state’s low-income residents.
Republican Rep. Scott Sanford of McKinney told the body he was opposing the bill on “the moral grounds that the lottery is a tax on poor people.”
“It is therefore immoral and wrong,” Sanford said, noting that state residents without high school degrees tend to spend $600 annually on the lottery while those with graduate school-level educations spend about a fourth of that.
Suddenly, the GOP-controlled chamber was voting 82-64 to defeat the measure and abolish the commission gradually over the next year, with the support of some liberal Democrats. The House then went into a hastily called lunch break.
The lottery was created in 1991, after Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment.
The commission overseeing it was authorized by the Legislature two years later. So-called “Sunset bills,” or regularly scheduled measures allowing state commissions to continue their work, are usually fairly innocuous.
Those leading the charge to oppose reauthorization were largely first-year Republican representatives — and during the break, party leadership urged many to change their vote.
Despite some continued tea party opposition, the House eventually approved a measure to reconsider. It then voted to reauthorize the Lottery Commission by a vote of 91-53.
The measure must now clear a final, procedural hurdle in the House before heading to the state Senate.
Supporters said the reversal was necessary since the lottery accounts for more than $2 billion in funding for schools.
Indeed, those funds have already been built into the proposed state budget currently being considered by the Legislature.
Asked if he was surprised by the vote and then the reversal, House Speaker Joe Straus said, “The surprise is that something like this hasn’t happened before now.”
“Members express their will, and sometimes the consequences are discovered later,” said Straus, who was not on the floor during debate. “This is not unusual.”
Pressed on whether he supports the lottery, Straus replied: “I don’t buy tickets. They’re bad odds.”
Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat who sponsored the measure, said he understood some lawmakers have philosophical and religious objections to the lottery.
But he said the original defeat of reauthorization should have been less about whether the lottery was moral and more about whether the state could live without it, thus having to find billions elsewhere to make up for would-be deficits.
“I don’t think anybody loves the lottery,” Anchia said. But he added, “I didn’t foresee this bill as a referendum on the lottery, but it certainly materialized that way.”
Anchia said he talked to 30 to 40 lawmakers during the break. Among those who changed their votes were all four Democrats who previous voted to defeat his bill.
“The House is a mercurial place, there are all kinds of surprises and this was one of them,” he said. “But when I think people took a sober look at the budget dilemma that would ensue, they voted differently.”