Sports betting, casino gambling gaining Texas momentum, but jackpot unlikely this year
If you bet that proposals allowing sports betting and casino gambling would pass the Texas Legislature, you probably lost — again.
But last week’s dramatic votes on two gambling proposals reflect that proponents are heading in the right direction.
The Texas House passed a bill letting voters decide whether to allow sports betting on their mobile devices. With 101 votes, it’s a clear sign that House lawmakers, including conservative Republicans, are more receptive to expanding Texas gambling than ever in recent history.
The legislation must be approved by the Texas Senate, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has signaled the votes are not there.
I've said repeatedly there is little to no support for expanding gaming from Senate GOP. I polled members this week. Nothing changed. The senate must focus on issues voters expect us to pass. We don’t waste time on bills without overwhelming GOP support. HB1942 won’t be referred.…— Office of the Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (@LtGovTX) May 13, 2023
Another bill that would allow Texans to vote on casino gambling failed to pass the House, but with 92 votes had significant support.
Both bills will have momentum going into the 2025 legislative session. That’s especially the case for sports betting, which has the visible support of business leaders like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
“The public wants it; a significant number of the members want it,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “Some in leadership don’t want it. The leadership sets the agenda and they control the flow of legislation, which means if they don’t want it, it will not happen.”
The biggest obstacle for expanding gambling is Patrick, who could turn the tables on the issue with his support. Patrick on Saturday reaffirmed that gambling expansion bills would not make it to the Senate floor.
“I’ve said repeatedly there is little to no support for expanding gaming from Senate GOP. I polled members this week. Nothing changed,” Patrick said on Twitter. “The senate must focus on issues voters expect us to pass. We don’t waste time on bills without overwhelming GOP support. “
Since the sports betting bill won’t be considered in the Senate, Patrick is unlikely to discuss his opinion of it.
Gambling proponents know they must get Patrick on board with a gambling bill. If he is supportive, the rest of the Senate will fall in line.
The casino gambling legislation, which would have let voters decide on allowing eight destination resorts, including two in North Texas, will always be the toughest sell.
The bill that died last week was carried by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, a veteran lawmaker and strong ally of House Speaker Dade Phelan, R- Beaumont.
“Members, I do know when it’s time to fold ‘em,” Geren said last week.
Since House members did vote on Geren’s bill, casino gambling advocates know where to go during the next session to bolster support, though without Patrick the bill won’t get through the Senate.
The Las Vegas Sands, the company that hired an army of lobbyists to push the proposal, will continue to be all in for the effort.
“We have always understood what it would take to get this legislation across the finish line, and the vote taken reinforces how close we are to making our vision a reality,” said Andy Abboud, senior vice president of government relations at Las Vegas Sands. “We will continue to press forward with our efforts in Texas, and we are grateful to the House members who supported this legislation to allow Texans to vote on whether to bring destination resorts to the state.”
Odds are sports betting and expanded casino gambling will one day be legal in Texas. The question is whether it will occur during Patrick’s term or when he retires from office.
Other types of gambling took time to exist in Texas, including horse racing and the lottery. “These things take a long time and you have to build from scratch,” Rottinghaus said. “We’re probably at stage two of five, so this is going to take a little bit of time.”
The House sports betting bill, carried by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, benefited from the popularity of sports betting across the country, which is easy to explain. It also had a more local feel because of the backing from local professional sports teams. If it does get past the Senate and is approved by voters in a November referendum, Texas would join at least 35 other states and Washington, D.C., in allowing cellphone bets.
There is sports owner support for casino gambling, as well. Cuban that he wants to build a new NBA arena within a destination resort in a partnership with Sands.
“There’s a lot of support for it from the business community, and it’s turning the tide, and it’ll happen at some point,” Rottinghaus said. “Like anything that’s both financial and runs up against people’s moral opinions, it is always gonna take a long time to get done.”
Texas voters approved the constitutional amendment allowing the return of legal wagering on horse racing in 1987. Then they voted to legalize the state lottery in 1991. Both measures passed by a 2-to-1 margin.
The biggest rainbow for supporters of gambling expansion is looking forward to Patrick’s retirement. He’s in his third term. Maybe the next lieutenant governor will have a different approach to gambling.
“There’s an ebb and flow to the leadership at the top,” Rottinghaus said. “That might, at some point, make this practical to happen.”