Will Texas Reconsider Legalizing Betting And Sports Betting?

In the face of fierce headwinds to push through gambling expansion, sports betting and casino advocates could be pitted against each other.

TEXAS, U.S. — Proponents of Texas gambling legalization are once again going all out this legislative session, confident they’ve built more support since their effort fell wide in 2021.

However, the push is still an uphill battle as Lt. gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, continues to throw cold water at the idea. But supporters have found promising signs elsewhere, and they have returned to the Capitol with an army of well-connected lobbyists after spending millions of dollars in campaign funds during the 2022 election.

There are two main camps pushing for gambling expansion in Texas – and for now they seem to be operating in parallel ways. The first is a continuation of a well-funded and high-profile effort initiated by the late Sheldon Adelson and his gaming empire, Las Vegas Sands, to legalize casinos, particularly high-end “destination resorts” in the state’s largest cities. The other lead is the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of professional state sports teams and betting platforms focused solely on legalizing mobile sports betting.

Gambling is largely illegal in Texas, with exceptions such as the lottery, horse and greyhound racing, and bingo. Texas has three tribal casinos that are allowed to operate under federal law.

The Sports Betting Alliance has already caused a stir in the run-up to this session by hiring former Gov. Rick Perry to speak.

“What has changed [since 2021], I think, is continuing to educate the public that this isn’t an expansion of gambling,” Perry said in an interview, implying that Texans already engage in this type of gambling in other states or illegally. “It’s going on, it’s going to go on, and the state of Texas needs to regulate it and make sure its citizens’ information is protected.”

According to the American Gaming Association, sports betting is legal in 36 states and Washington, DC.

Sands, meanwhile, has touted a “long-term commitment to Texas.” It has not publicly outlined its strategy for this session, but a spokesman for its state policy action committee, Matt Hirsch, said it will “continue to actively engage with state and local politicians throughout this session and remain committed to working with the.” legislators so that voters can ultimately decide this issue.”

Both proposals did not get very far in their first legislative period two years ago. Their bills were heard by committees in the House of Representatives but were never voted down, and they received no Senate hearings.

This time, the Sands team aims to submit its legislation earlier and with broader support from both the gaming industry and the legislature.

They also see stronger allies in Governor Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan. Both leaders expressed their openness to expanded gaming in 2021, and in recent statements went further by suggesting an endorsement of Sand’s vision for casinos in the state. A spokesman for Abbott said in a statement last fall, “If there was a way to create a very professional entertainment option for Texans, Governor Abbott would look into it.”

“What I don’t want to see is go to every supermarket and see 15 slot machines,” Phelan said during a media briefing earlier this month as the session began. “I want to see destination-style casinos that are high quality and that create jobs and improve the lifestyles of these communities.”

Phelan’s comment was notable for its use of the phrase “destination-style” – the same language used in Sands’ pitch.

However, it remains to be seen if gaming advocates can move forward with Patrick in this session. Of the “Big Three” leaders – which include himself, Phelan and Abbott – he was the most resistant to expanded gambling. In a television interview in December, he said he saw no “movement” on the issue.

Other opponents of more gambling hold on. If anything, they argue, there is less attraction for expanded gambling this session because the Texas economy is in better shape than it was two years ago, with a $33 billion budget surplus. Back then, increased gambling was discussed as a potential new source of revenue to help offset an expected deficit after the state was hit by economic losses from COVID-19 shutdowns.

“I’ve spoken to countless members of the House and Senate, and gambling seems less appealing in a time of record wealth and surpluses,” R-Plano Rep. Matt Shaheen said in a statement. “There doesn’t seem to be an appetite for helping big corporations increase their profits at the expense of countless Texans.”

Expanding gambling continues to be a popular idea among Texans. A poll released Thursday by the University of Houston found that 75% of adult Texans support legislation that would allow voters to decide whether to legalize casinos. The poll also found 72% support among Republicans and 69% support among “born again Christians,” which pollsters noted, “for a long time [been] the backbone of opposition to legalized gambling.”

In November, Senator Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, resubmitted the casino bill she had with her at the last sitting, although no house attendant has yet been filed. State Assemblyman John Kuempel, R-Seguin, “will be introducing casino legislation again at this session,” his chief of staff, Brittney Madden, wrote in an email.

The sports betting bills have not yet been filed and it is unclear who will foot the bill. House writer from the 2021 session, State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston did not seek re-election.

Rival campaigns?

With strong headwinds to pushing through gambling expansion, sports betting and casino advocates may be competing rather than working together.

The Sports Betting Alliance is officially neutral on casino legalization, but the Sands team has welcomed the collaboration, noting that their proposal would also legalize sports betting.

Sports betting advocates see their cause as a separate issue that is more palatable to lawmakers. Perry said there is a “clear demarcation” between what the Sports Betting Alliance is pushing for versus legalized casinos.

“The other problems that are out there have to stand or fall on their own,” Perry said. “I don’t think these will be linked at any point.”

It’s unclear if Patrick, the highest hurdle for advanced gambling, sees a similar distinction between causes and could be more open-minded about sports betting. Its top political strategist Allen Blakemore recently pledged to campaign for the Sports Betting Alliance by the end of the year. And Patrick is close to Perry, once calling him “one of my best friends in life.”

Neither Patrick’s office nor Blakemore responded to requests for comment.

In the December TV interview, Patrick said no one had mentioned expanded gambling to him and no Republicans had filed bills on it. But supporters are backing Senate Republicans, and at least one of them, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, is considering the sports betting push.

“It is true that Senator Kolkhorst is investigating legislation to regulate ongoing app-based sports betting in Texas, but she is not commenting on pending legislation,” Kolkhorst’s chief of staff Chris Steinbach said in a text message. “She will have more to say once a bill should be submitted.”

The influence

Meanwhile, the gaming industry maintains a high reputation in the Capitol. As of Thursday, Las Vegas Sands had registered 69 lobbyists with the Texas Ethics Commission, and the value of the contracts is well into the seven figures. The Sports Betting Alliance had 20 lobbyists registered with the TEC.

The stable of lobbyists continues to include Capitol heavyweights, such as former top advisers to governors and chiefs of staff to House Speakers.

Gaming interests have also increased campaign donations since the last session. Sands established a political action committee, Texas Sands PAC, which distributed at least $2.2 million in donations to statewide officials and dozens of lawmakers from both parties during the 2022 election cycle. The PAC was funded almost entirely by Miriam Adelson, who became the majority shareholder of Las Vegas Sands after her husband’s death in 2021.

Regardless, Miriam Adelson was a key contributor to Abbott’s 2022 re-election campaign, writing him a $1 million check.

One of the recipients of the Sands PAC money was Rep. Craig Goldman, the new chairman of the House Republican caucus. The Fort Worth lawmaker recently told a local publication that he has yet to comment on casinos and that campaign money would not affect him.

Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, whose team is part of the Sports Betting Alliance, donated a flood of six-figure donations towards the end of the election, including $500,000 to Abbott and $200,000 to Patrick. Jones has long supported the legalization of sports betting in Texas, saying in a radio interview earlier this month that “it’s really a thing that needs to be addressed at this point in time”.

Gambling interests also played a major role in funding Abbott and Patrick’s Jan. 17 inauguration. The program listed at least three gaming interests as top corporate donors: Sands; IGT, the Las Vegas-based maker of slot machines; and Landry’s, the Houston-based hospitality company whose CEO, Tilman Fertitta, chaired the founding committee. (Corporations can’t donate to campaigns under Texas law, but they can fund dedications.)

Alongside Fertitta, Miriam Adelson sat front row onstage at the inauguration and watched from several seats away as Abbott and Patrick were inaugurated for their third term. And three days later, at a pro-Israel conference in Austin, she sat in the front row when Abbott gave a speech and twice commended the Adelsons for their pro-Israel commitment.

All the influence doesn’t deter gaming opponents like Texas Values, the social conservative group.

“Gambling expansion is already dead in the Texas Senate; and it would be a mistake for Texas House to waste valuable time on a political issue for which there are no votes,” the group’s political director Jonathan Covey said in a statement.

Rob Kohler, a lobbyist for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, said he “really [doesn’t] see” no new impetus behind the thing.

“I’ve been involved with this issue for 20 years, and it always starts with the same attempt to get people’s attention,” Kohler said. “As the session goes on and the issue is reviewed, people are realizing it’s not in the best interest of the state.”

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This story comes from our KHOU 11 News partners at The Texas Tribunea nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that educates and collaborates with Texans on public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.


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