Casinos, Gambling in Texas May be Long Shot in Conservative Legislature, but Industry's Not Giving Up

TV, Radio ads began airing Thursday in multimillion-dollar campaign to push for casinos in Texas

AUSTIN, Texas (Texas Insider Report) — "The Legislature can allow Texans to vote to build four world-class destination resorts and casinos, bringing those dollars back to Texas," says the narrator of one of the 30 second TV ads that began running across Texas early last week. Similar to previous efforts – all of which have failed to gain much, if any traction in the legislature – attempting to insert the proverbial camel's nose under or into the Texas tent appears to be a tall order.

The Texas Constitution bans gambling, so it would take two bills to legalize sports betting – one to amend the Texas Constitution, which requires two-thirds of both the State House & Senate, as well as approval by Texas voters, and another authorizing State Agencies to license and regulate the expansion.

But that doesn't mean the gambling and casino industry efforts being mounted this Legislative Session are similar – the Las Vegas Sands alone has hired more than 65 lobbyists so far in Austin, and is spending millions of dollars to sell the issue statewide.

While they are hoping to persuade a legislature that's traditionally been reluctant to back gambling expansion legislation in the past, because the industry stated early on "We're very committed to Texas, whether it's this session or future sessions," politicos in Austin are wondering if the more moderate Republicans pushing the issue in the Austin might somehow overcome opposition prior to the Monday, May 31st adjournment.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick is on record saying he's against allowing any form of gambling to gain a foothold in the Lone Star State. But despite Patrick’s opposition in the Texas Senate, House State Affairs Committee members – under the leadership of Committee Chairman Chris Paddie – held a hearing on the controversial issue last Wednesday morning.

Three gambling bills we introduced and discussed during the Wednesday, April 14th hearing:
 
  • HB 2070 by Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) relates to the regulation of Sports Wagering & Decriminalizing Wagering on sports events.
  • HJR 97 by Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) proposes a Constitutional Amendment authorizing the legislature to Legalize Sports Wagering in Texas.
  • HJR 133 by John Kuempel (R-Seguin) proposes a Constitutional Amendment to "foster economic development & job growth" and create a Texas Gaming Commission to Authorize & Regulate Casinos.
Representatives from the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission – as well as the Kickapoo Tribe which operates a casino in Eagle Pass as one of Texas' three federally recognized tribes – both testied against the bills during the hearing.

The Sands has made little progress in the Texas Senate, where Senate versions of the bills have been referred to committee and have not yet been scheduled for public hearing. House Joint Resolution 133 (HJR 133) – as well as on a proposal to specifically allow sports gambling in the state – is being pushed by the Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of professional Texas sports teams, betting platforms and racetracks.

The Las Vegas Sands and others are backing legislation to put the issue before Texas voters, passing responsibility on whether to create special casino licenses for four destination resorts in Austin, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, and San Antonio to Texas citizens. 

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (left,) recently told the Dallas Morning News he supported legalized gambling on both sports betting and in casinos across Texas, saying, “I think it’s time. It makes no sense for us to force Texans to go to neighboring states to gamble in casinos.”

And yes, the gambling empire known as the Las Vegas Sands launched its multi-city, multimillion-dollar advertising blitz last week to try and build support among Texas' voters. The ads will air in those markets as well as some others.

While those TV ads emphasize that "billions of tourism and gambling dollars" leave Texas every year for neighboring states, there's no mention telling Texans of the attendant costs other states have experienced after allowing gambling, casinos and online sports games to become legal.

In many, the costs are great.
  State Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Ft. Worth,) spoke on behalf of HJR 133, touting the job creation that destination resorts may generate, while lamenting proactively one criticism – that casinos would bring "blight and negative social impact."
 
"To that I say, we already have negative social impact. Go no further than our borders, where those with an addiction can drive less than 20 minutes and then return home to our state where no resources are in place for them. Go no further than your smartphone, where illegal bets are bing placed on illegal bookie apps every day."

Geren promised a "highly, highly regulated option, an option for an extremely limited gaming footprint, an option which includes real resources to combat any negative effects."

The committee also heard from Las Vegas Sands' Senior Vice President of Government Relations Andy Abboud, who addressed concerns raised by committee member Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano.)

The Sands-supported proposal seems "very favorable" toward Las Vegas hospitality operators, observed Shaheen, who raised a number of pointed questions and concerns.

Newly-elected Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (right, with Gov. Greg Abbott & Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick,) has, by and large, stayed above the fray – leading some in Austin to believe he's more open to gambling expansion than Lt. Gov. Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate.

The Senate proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 49 by Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston,) has gotten two coauthors since it was filed: Democrats Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen and Beverly Powell of Burleson south of Ft. Worth.

But the Sands and other backers are undeterred by the slow progress. At one point in last Wednesday's House hearing, Abboud light-heartedly acknowledged the "small number of lobbyists" the company has unleashed on Austin, saying, more seriously, that it hired the army "because we wanted to be transparent" and have as many people as possible available to answer lawmakers' questions about the issue.
 
The Sands would "never claim to be an economic panacea," said Abboud. It sees itself as just another industry that wants to come to Texas.

"We're here for the long haul," Abboud said. "We're very committed to Texas, whether it is this session or future sessions."

Gov. Greg Abbott has so far stated he's waiting to hear from state lawmakers as to where their constituents are on the issue.
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