By Gromer Jeffers Jr.
SHERMAN — At a packed 903 Brewers in Sherman, Beto O’Rourke was asked how close are Texans to being able to legally gamble.
“I think we’re like 35 miles from that, right?” O’Rourke said as the Sherman brewery crowd broke into laughter on April 21. “It is legal in Oklahoma, so I think it makes a lot of sense for us to think about the fact that we have an extraordinary opportunity to deliver a service or a form of entertainment that many Texans already enjoy in other states.”
Not more than a horseshoe toss from Oklahoma, Grayson County residents are aware their neighbors to the north have legal casinos through agreements with the state and Native American tribes. They are popular with Texas voters, but mostly illegal in the Lone Star State.
And it’s not just gambling that has some Texans near the border looking to Sooner country with envy.
Though Republican red like Texas, Oklahoma has expanded Medicaid to provide more affordable health insurance for its residents. And this year there’s a referendum before Oklahomans that would legalize marijuana for recreational use.
In recent weeks O’Rourke has pushed that trifecta. He says Medicaid expansion and the legalization of marijuana would flush Texas with cash, reduce property taxes and pay for essential services, including education and health care. Though not a part of his platform, he’s also open to expanding gambling to include casinos and maybe sports betting.
His recent speech to the mostly Democratic Sherman crowd was more like a sermon to the choir.
“We need to get past our differences, the divisions that have been sowed by those who are in the highest positions of power today, and get back to our common basic Texas values, not Democratic Party values, not Republican Party values, but Texas values,” O’Rourke said.
Though close to Oklahoma, Texas is a long way from expanding Medicaid. Expanding gambling is a pipe dream at the moment. And the legalization of marijuana for recreational use is also a long shot. In previous legislative sessions, bills that would accomplish those goals have languished in committees.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whom O’Rourke is challenging in the Nov. 8 general election, has not been supportive of expanding Medicaid. He is open to lowering penalties for marijuana possession. And he hasn’t expressed support in pushing casino gambling.
“Texas was named the Best State for Business by CEOs across the country for a record-smashing 18 years in a row today. Yet, this week Beto O’Rourke is doubling down on abortion with Cecile Richards joining his team, legalizing drugs, and costing the state billions in health care,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement. “He should be running for Governor of California, not Texas.”
With its diverse economy, Texas is an economic powerhouse. Though it tops the nation in uninsured residents, most Texans prosper and people are moving to the state in high numbers.
In contrast, Oklahoma is a smaller state that can’t be confused as an economic giant. In 2020 it trailed only Texas in the rate of residents without medical insurance. The implementation of a Medicaid expansion program is improving those numbers.
“Oklahoma got poorer faster,” said Glenn Melancon, a professor at Southeast Oklahoma State University and former Democratic candidate for Congress.
The Sherman resident, however, says there’s no good reason that Texas should not expand Medicaid. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would foot 90% of the bill.
“It is very frustrating not to have affordable health care, particularly for people in rural areas, because they’re getting sick like the rest of us,” he said. “It would make it much easier on everybody to expand Medicaid. Right. And yes they do know what is across the border and what people have over there.”
As for gambling, the state’s Christian lobby and would-be competition from other sources have kept it from expanding.
“I wouldn’t bet on it. The landscape has not changed,” said Robert Kohler, lobbyist for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. “If the folks who push this were correct on how popular it was, surely we would have seen that play out in past governors’ elections and we just never have.”
Nearby Medicaid expansion
After months of pounding Abbott over last year’s winter storm that left millions without power and resulted in higher energy bills, O’Rourke has added the need for Texas to reduce property taxes and better fund education and health care as core policy proposals.
The centerpiece of his plan is Medicaid expansion. He said that would not only provide residents with affordable health care, but free up the savings that local governments use for indigent care and other costs for other things, such as reducing property taxes.
“It produces extraordinary local returns in our economy,” O’Rourke said of the projected [annual] $10 billion the expansion would generate. “And by the way, it reduces the property tax burden, because we no longer have to foot the bill for indigent health care at our public hospitals through our property tax.”
Several states bordering Texas have expanded Medicaid, including New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Three of them had GOP governors at the time they made the expansion.
But Abbott and the Republican-controlled Legislature have rejected calls to expand Medicaid. Some critics of the idea contend that while the federal offer on 90 cents of the dollar looks good now, it could change in the future and Texas would be stuck with the bill.
Eze, Abbott’s spokesperson, said Texas has a waiver that allows the state to “maintain an efficient and effective Medicaid managed care model while standing up new programs, ensuring Texans have access to crucial healthcare.”
“While the federal government touts the current 90/10 cost split for Medicaid expansion, Governor Abbott is not willing to sign off on yet another federal program that the debt-ridden federal government can’t sustain and will eventually leave states footing the entire bill, costing Texas taxpayers billions in additional funding,” Eze said in a statement.
State Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, has pushed legislation to expand Medicaid and says it has some Republican support.
“If we were to expand Medicaid, the pressure on our hospital district and the taxes they would have to levy upon their citizens would go down,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Oklahomans have embraced Medicaid expansion since voters approved it in 2020. The next year the state dealt $164 million to fund the expansion with the expectation of the federal dollars to come. More than 144,000 residents are now newly insured, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
Texans near the Oklahoma border, particularly in rural areas, are urging Texas to follow their neighbor’s lead.
“Beto is trying to create a conversation around normal,” said Sherman Moore, a Cooke County rancher who attended the Sherman town hall meeting. “Put Medicaid expansion on the ballot. Let the people vote on it.”
Sowing the seeds for weed
Another major plank in O’Rourke’s plan is the legalization of marijuana.
“I think that’s what we need to do,” said 18-year-old R. Vincent, a student at Austin College in Sherman. “I know so many people here, they go to Oklahoma to gamble, they go to Oklahoma to get weed. We could boost our economy. Everybody’s already going to that state to do it.”
Vincent is referring to the numerous people flooding Oklahoma for medical marijuana.
In 2018 Oklahoma voters approved the use of medical marijuana. The law is quite liberal for a red state. Users only need permission from a doctor to purchase marijuana from a dispensary, and buyers of the product are restricted to use the product only for certain medical conditions.
Oklahoma Watch reports that 1 in 13 adult Oklahomans has a patient card. And because qualifying medical conditions are not required, patients get easy approval.
That’s sparked the creation of more than 2,200 dispensaries across the state. The Watch reports that the Sooner State leads the nation in per-capita dispensaries in medical marijuana states, with 56 per 100,000 residents. Watch reporter Paul Monies dubbed Oklahoma the “wild west of weed.”
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has said the program could spiral out of control and voters were misled about its impact. Lawmakers are considering a moratorium on processing and issuing new medical marijuana business licenses.
But amid the concerns and exuberance over medical cannabis, Oklahoma voters in November will now decide on whether the use and sale of recreational marijuana should be made legal. The referendum will ask voters to approve a plan that would legalize and regulate marijuana for persons 21 years old and older and would impose a 15% excise tax on marijuana sales for purchases by an individual without a medical marijuana license.
In Texas, views are also changing about marijuana laws, but Abbott has stopped short of supporting legalization.
“Governor Abbott believes that prison and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who may harm others, and possession of a small amount of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with,” Eze said. “Beto O’Rourke wouldn’t stop there, having advocated for the federal government to consider legalizing all drugs.”
O’Rourke has long pushed for the legalization of marijuana, and even wrote a book about it. He says he doesn’t support the legalization of all drugs, and claims that he does have been proved false.
The former El Paso congressman said that legalizing marijuana would provide revenue for the state and economic opportunities for Texans. He added that it would also bring about criminal justice reform, because Black and Hispanic residents are targeted by police and disproportionately convicted and jailed for marijuana crimes.
“We still in Texas lock up people for possession of a substance that is legal in almost every other state in the union,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke added that Texans of all stripes use marijuana.
“Not only do Texans of every race, ethnicity and gender, use marijuana at the same rate, but your big secret that I want to make sure we all hear out loud,” he said, “Republicans use it just as much as Democrats.”
O’Rourke unlucky in small-town Texas
O’Rourke will have a tough time convincing a majority of the Texas electorate to support his policies, though he’s convinced that casino gambling and marijuana would be approved by a majority of voters.
In his 2018 U.S. Senate race against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, O’Rourke managed only about 11,000 Grayson County votes, while Cruz tallied over 31,000 from the area.
In 2020 Trump easily won the county.
O’Rourke said it would take like-minded Grayson County residents to convince their neighbors to join his crusade against Abbott.
“The most effective way to reach a voter in Grayson County is by ensuring that someone from Grayson County knocks on their door,” O’Rourke said.
“I know that we’re going to find a way to connect with people on world-class schools, great jobs, and the ability to expand Medicaid … and the other important issues that we’re all in agreement on, whether that is making marijuana legal, or ensuring that we have new sources of revenue that can come into this state that you can access just across the border in Oklahoma.”