State Sen. Carol Alvarado knows how to fight the good fight. The Houston Democrat also knows how to play the long game.
She relies on both when it comes to gambling. In an interview with PlayTexas, Alvarado explains how and why she continues to fight to legalize Texas gambling.
Alvarado’s gritty approach to legalizing casino gambling
Alvarado has grit. In 2021, she mounted a 15-hour filibuster against a GOP bill that would restrict voting opportunities. No rest breaks, no water, no sitting, no leaning. Just stand and deliver. Which she did with a stack of papers, a back brace for support and also some good running shoes.
Unfortunately, her Herculean efforts didn’t sway the vote. The senate, as usual, voted along party lines. She did prove a few things, though. She’s tough … and content to play the long game. When it comes to legal gambling in Texas, she’s been filing legislation since 2009.
“I keep filing this legislation because I know Texans have an appetite for gambling. They always have. And we should create an entertainment opportunity for them that sets Texas apart from our neighbors.”
What’s in SJR 49?
Senate Joint Resolution 49 could be the best proposal to legalize gambling in the state. It establishes the Texas Gaming Commission and the framework for four casino resorts to be built.
SJR 49 specifically lays out how gambling could be established in Texas. It’s core components have been created over the last decade.
- Establishment of the Texas Gaming Commission to adopt rules that regulate the casino gaming industry
- Authorization for the Legislature to regulate sports wagering
- A maximum of four Class I gaming licenses for casino resorts in four major metropolitan areas
- A maximum of three Class II gaming licenses for limited casino gaming at pari-mutuel horse racetracks in three different metropolitan areas of more than two million people
- Authorization for a maximum of two Class III gaming licenses for limited casino gaming at pari-mutuel greyhound racetracks
- Allowance for Native American tribes to offer slot machines or casino gambling on tribal land within the state
- Requirements for applicants for a Class I license to commit to a land and development investment of $2 billion for metro areas of 5-plus million people and $1 billion for metro areas of 2 to 5 million people
- Requirement that no part of that investment commitment be funded with public money or use public facilities
- Raising of a 10% tax on the Gross Gaming Revenue of all table games and also a 25% tax on all slot machines
- Allocation of 18% of total GGR to the permanent school fund
Alvarado has teamed with two Kuempels on measure
This resolution is just the most recent iteration of Alvarado’s legislation. She’s supported it since 2009 when she served in the Texas House of Representatives.
One of the early promoters of that legislation was the late Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, a rare character. He was socially conservative and a staunch supporter of legal gambling. Their legislation didn’t pass in 2009. Kuempel passed away in 2010, shorting Alvarado a major supporter across the aisle. She kept at it.
Alvarado’s current counterpart sponsoring the House version of her resolution is Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, Edmund’s son.
Bipartisan support is vital, especially considering the Republican Party platform has opposition to gambling baked into it. Despite their ideological differences, Alvarado does have more GOP support.
Proximity over party
Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has consistently endorsed casino and sports wagering legislation. Proximity trumps party in his case. His constituents are on the Louisiana border and regularly cross it to gamble. He’s watched potential revenue stream across the border for years.
John Kuempel, on the other hand, represents Seguin, a suburb of San Antonio 300 miles from the Louisiana border. That makes his views on gambling unique in Texas, Alvarado said.
“John Kuempel’s constituents aren’t crossing the border to gamble everyday. He represents people in the heart of Texas, and even he sees the opportunities to them that this legislation could bring.”
Alvarado envisions high-end casinos
Alvarado thinks the casinos in her legislation should be top-tier.
“The casino resorts I want to see are more high end. They’ll have to have 4- or 5-star hotels attached to them, convention centers, a whole resort approach.”
As a Houstonian, she looks at the nearby gambling region of Lake Charles, LA, as competition for a Texas casino resort. Lake Charles, 140 miles from Houston, has three casinos. There’s the Golden Nugget Lake Charles, The L’Auberge du Lac Resort and also the Isle of Capri Hotel. Both the Golden Nugget and L’Auberge received 4 diamond ratings from AAA (out of 5).
“We need to be a step up from the Golden Nugget if we want Houstonians to stay here to play.”
Alvarado expresses similar sentiments with Dallas-Fort Worth. There, North Texans commute 90 miles to the two major Oklahoma tribal casinos, the Winstar and Choctaw. These two resorts offer a wide range of amenities. The Choctaw, however, is the only one to receive a 4-diamond rating.
“Texans will take pride if we establish Texas destinations that go beyond the top destinations in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and even Vegas.”
To get an idea of the scale Alvarado envisions, her legislation calls for an initial investment more than $1 billion. The Lake Charles Golden Nugget cost $700 million to build.
The Winstar and Choctaw’s initial build costs were in the low hundred millions. Since then, both Oklahoma tribal casinos have added major additions. The total investment cost for both is over $1 billion each.
Alvarado continues to fight to legalize gambling in Texas
So, is legal gambling close to becoming a reality in Texas?
“It’s hard to say. We’ve got more Republican support, which is needed,” Alvarado said. She declined to state whether Lt. Gov. Patrick, one of the most vocal Republican opponents of casino gambling, has shown any indication of supporting SJR 49.
Fellow Houstonian Tilman Fertitta could aid her efforts. He owns the aforementioned Golden Nugget Lake Charles, Landry’s Inc., and the Houston Rockets. In the last two election cycles, he has donated heavily to both Gov. Greg Abbott and Patrick. He also endorsed the House version of Alvarado’s legislation.
“Sure, I’ve talked with Tilman. He’s interested.”
In Alvarado’s mind, getting this legislation to the finish line rests entirely on the Legislature. She makes it clear that boosting revenue is not a part of her argument.
“Tax revenue isn’t the thing I want to focus on. Casino revenue is great, but revenue projections for the state are already strong. We have to convince the Legislature that this is a form of entertainment that promotes the state. The people are ready for it. Polls have shown it, and I’ve seen it. If we get some more senators on board … we’ll see.”
The Texas Legislature reconvenes in Austin in early-2023. That will come after a major election cycle where the governor and lieutenant governor positions are up for re-election. There are also several Senate seats up for grabs.