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Gambling legalization advocates in Texas are back in full swing this legislative session, believing they’ve garnered more support since their efforts in 2021 saw little success.
The push remains an uphill battle, however, as Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, continues to pour cold water on the idea. But supporters have found promising signs elsewhere, returning to the Capitol with a group of well-connected lobbyists after donating millions of dollars in campaign contributions during the 2022 election.
There are two main camps pushing for expanded gambling in Texas — and right now, they appear to be operating on parallel tracks. The first is a continuation of a well-funded, high-profile effort launched by the late Sheldon Adelson and his gaming empire, Las Vegas Sands, to In legalizing casinos, especially high-quality “destination resorts” in the state’s largest cities. Another avenue is the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of the state’s professional sports teams and betting platforms dedicated to legalizing mobile sports betting.
Gambling is largely illegal in Texas, with the exception of lotteries, horse and greyhound racing, and bingo. Texas is home to three tribal casinos that are licensed to operate under federal law.
The sports betting league made waves ahead of the session by hiring former Gov. Rick Perry as a speaker.
“what’s changed [since 2021], I think, it’s continuing education for the public, it’s not an expansion of gambling,” Perry said in an interview, suggesting that Texans are already participating in this kind of gambling in other states or illegally. “It’s happening and it’s going to continue to happen. , Texas needs to regulate it and ensure its citizens’ information is protected. “
Sports betting is legal in 36 states and Washington, D.C., according to the American Gaming Association.
Sands, meanwhile, has been touting a “long-term commitment to Texas.” It has not publicly detailed its strategy for the session, but Matt Hirsch, a spokesman for its political action committee in the state, said it “will continue to actively engage with state and local leaders during this session and remain committed to the And lawmakers ultimately let voters decide the issue.”
Neither proposal moved forward in its first legislative session two years ago. Their bills received committee hearings in the House but were never voted down, nor did they receive hearings in the Senate.
This time around, the Sands team is aiming for faster legislation and broader support within the gaming industry and within the legislature.
They also see stronger allies in Governor Greg Abbott and State House Speaker Dade Phelan. Both leaders are open to expanding the gambling industry in 2021, and they went further in their recent statements, signaling agreement with Sands’ vision for the state’s casinos. “If there is a way to create a very professional entertainment option for Texans, Governor Abbott would consider it,” an Abbott spokesman said in a statement last fall.
“What I don’t want to see is walk into every convenience store and see 15 slot machines,” Phelan said at a media briefing earlier this month while the meeting was underway. “I want to see destination casinos that are high quality, create jobs and improve the lifestyle in these communities.”
Phelan’s comments are notable for their use of the term “destination style”—the same language used in Sands’ pitch.
It remains to be seen, though, whether gaming advocates can make any progress with Patrick in this session. Of the leaders of the “Big Three” that includes him, Phelan and Abbott, he is the most opposed to expanded gambling. In a television interview in December, he said he hadn’t seen any “development” on the issue.
Others against more gambling are steadfast. They argue that expanded gambling is less attractive this session, if anything, because the Texas economy is doing better than it was two years ago, with a $33 billion budget surplus. At the time, increased gambling was discussed as a potential new revenue stream to meet the projected deficit after the state suffered economic damage from the COVID-19 shutdown.
“I’ve spoken to countless members of the House and Senate, and during a time of record prosperity and surpluses, gambling seems less attractive,” Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, said in a statement. “There seems to be no interest in helping big corporations increase their profits at the expense of countless Texans.”
Expanded gambling remains a popular idea among Texans. A University of Houston poll released Thursday found that 75 percent of adult Texans support legislation that would let voters decide to legalize casinos.The survey also found support among Republicans at 72 percent and “born again Christians” at 69 percent, with pollsters noting that “a longstanding [been] The backbone of the opposition to legal gambling. “
In November, Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, resubmitted the casino bill she had submitted in the previous session, though her House counterpart has yet to do so. State Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, “will be reintroducing casino legislation this session,” his chief of staff Brittney Madden wrote in an email.
The sports betting bill has not yet been tabled and it is unclear who will take on the bill. The House author for the 2021 session, Rep. Dan Huberty of Houston, is not seeking re-election.
Given the tough headwinds for gambling through any expansion, sports betting and casino advocates are likely to compete with each other rather than work in tandem.
The sports betting league is officially neutral on casino legalization, but the Sands team welcomed the collaboration, noting that its proposal would also legalize sports betting.
Advocates for sports betting see their cause as a separate issue that is more popular with lawmakers. Perry said there is a “clear line” between what sports betting leagues are promoting compared to legal casinos.
“Any other issues that exist, they’re going to have to sort themselves out,” Perry said. “I don’t think these are connected at any point.”
It’s not clear whether Patrick, the top hurdle to expanding gambling, sees a similar distinction between the causes, and ones that might be better suited to sports betting. His top political strategist, Alan Blackmore, was recently signed on to lobby for the sports betting league through the end of the year. Patrick is close to Perry, once calling him “one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life.”
Neither Patrick’s office nor Blackmore responded to requests for comment.
In a December television interview, Patrick said expanded gambling hadn’t been mentioned to him, and no Republicans had introduced a bill on it. But advocates are making the case to Senate Republicans, at least one of whom, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, is considering a push for sports betting.
“Sen. Kolkhorst is indeed working on legislation to regulate ongoing app-based sports betting in Texas, but she has no comment on pending legislation,” Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, Chris Steinbach, said in a text message. “Once the bill is tabled, she will have more to say.”
Meanwhile, the gaming industry maintains a high profile in the Capitol. As of Thursday, Las Vegas Sands had 69 lobbyists registered with the Texas Ethics Commission, with contracts totaling seven figures. The sports betting league has 20 lobbyists signed with the TEC.
The lobby continues to include Capitol heavyweights such as the governor’s former top adviser and the House speaker’s chief of staff.
Gambling interest has also boosted campaign contributions since the last session. Sands formed a political action committee, the Texas Sands PAC, that has donated at least $2.2 million to statewide officials and dozens of lawmakers from both parties during the 2022 election cycle. The PAC is almost entirely funded by Miriam Adelson, who became majority owner of Las Vegas Sands after her husband died in 2021.
Separately, Miriam Adelson, one of the major donors to Abbott’s 2022 re-election campaign, wrote him a check for $1 million.
One of the recipients of the Sands PAC funds is State Rep. Craig Goldman, the new chairman of the House Republican Caucus. The Fort Worth lawmaker recently told a local publication that he has not yet taken a position on the casinos and that campaign money won’t affect him.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a member of the sports betting league, made massive six-figure donations in the late election, including $500,000 to Abbott and $200,000 to Patrick. Jones, a longtime supporter of legalizing sports betting in Texas, said in a radio interview earlier this month, “It’s really an issue that needs to be addressed at this time.”
Gambling interests also played a major role in funding the Jan. 17 inauguration of Abbott and Patrick. The plan lists at least three gaming interests as top corporate donors: Sands; IGT, a Las Vegas-based slot machine maker; and Landry’s, a Houston-based hospitality company whose CEO Tillman Faye Tilman Fertitta served as the inaugural committee chair. (Under Texas law, corporations cannot donate to campaigns, but they can fund inaugurations.)
In addition to Fertitta, Miriam Adelson sat front row on the inauguration stage, watching from a few seats in the distance as Abbott and Patrick took the oath of office and began their third term of office. Three days later, she sat front row at a pro-Israel conference in Austin, where Abbott delivered a speech in which he twice praised the Adelsons for defending Israel.
All the influence peddling hasn’t troubled the game’s opponents, like the socially conservative group Texas Values.
“The Texas Senate has banned the expansion of gambling; the Texas House would be wrong to spend valuable time on policy issues that don’t have the votes to pass,” Jonathan Covey, the group’s policy director, said in a statement. said in a statement.
Rob Kohler, a lobbyist for the Texas Baptist Council for Christian Life, said he “really [doesn’t] See any new momentum behind the cause.
“I’ve worked on this problem for 20 years, and it always starts with the same attempt to draw attention to it,” Kohler said. “As the meeting progressed and the issues were reviewed, it was realized that this was not in the best interest of the country.”
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