The Senate in Texas is where legalized gambling lives or dies. Regrettably, it’s usually the latter. So, how can casino legislation pass the Texas Senate?
Polls indicate that a majority of Texans would support legislation to establish casinos in the state. That support can’t be found in the Texas Legislature. In the 2021 legislative session, neither SJR49, filed by Sen. Carol Alvarado, nor its partner resolution, HJR 133, filed by Rep. John Kuempel, made it out of committee.
Alvarado recently told PlayTexas her approach to legalizing gambling this time around:
“After the November elections, I’ll have some new senators to meet, introduce the legislation to and hope to get on board. I’m not sure about the lieutenant governor yet. It would be great to get him on board.”
Getting support from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick may be a tall order. He’s said in the past that gambling legislation wouldn’t “see the light of day” in his chamber.
However, he’s only the tip of the iceberg. Getting out of the Senate’s State Affairs Committee is the first significant challenge. Should it navigate the committee process, it would move to the main chamber, where the Republican-led Senate would debate it two more times.
So, how can casino legislation pass the Texas Senate?
Opposition starts at the top in the Senate
The lieutenant governor of Texas is no figurehead. The official serves the typical executive-branch position of standing second in line to the governor. But they also facilitate much of the business of the Senate.
Notable lieutenant governor legislative roles
- Establish all committees, both special and standing
- Appoint committee chairs and members
- Serve as chair of the Legislative Budget Board
- Assign all legislation to a committee
- Recognize members to speak during debate
Patrick shapes the discussion for all debate due to his authority to recognize speakers. More significantly for SJR 49, though, is Patrick’s authority to appoint committee members and assign legislation to committees.
The State Affairs Committee
SJR 49 has landed in the nine-member State Affairs Committee in the past. It will likely end up there again in the 2023 legislative session. Unfortunately, one casino supporter won’t be there in 2023: Eddie Lucio Jr.
Lucio Jr. announced in 2021 that he will not be seeking re-election, essentially retiring this year. In his 20-year career in the Texas Legislature, Lucio Jr. showed support for casinos in his native South Texas.
He represented one of the few possible proponents of gaming legislation in the committee. He is also one of two Democrats on the committee. His son serves in the House and also vocally supports gambling and sports betting legislation.
His retirement leaves Patrick free to choose his replacement. He could replace a potential supporter of SJR 49 with an opponent. We won’t know until the 2023 session rolls around.
Senate committees operate differently than House committees
In the House, there are formal subject-matter jurisdictions for all committees. The speaker of the House makes note of these when assigning legislation to committees.
The Senate doesn’t make such distinctions. The lieutenant governor is given some leeway when assigning legislation. Again, he is also free to choose the members of each committee.
This combination gives Patrick the ability to shape discussion on legislation in committees as well as in the main chamber.
Senate State Affairs Committee leans heavily right
Seven of the nine members currently on the Senate State Affairs Committee are Republicans.
- Bryan Hughes, chair (R)
- Brian Birdwell, vice-chair (R)
- Paul Bettencourt (R)
- Donna Campbell (R)
- Bob Hall (R)
- Lois Kolkhorst (R)
- Eddie Lucio Jr., retiring (D)
- Charles Schwertner (R)
- Judith Zaffirini (D)
Conservative behavior defines the committee
All of the Republicans on the Senate State Affairs Committee have a history of voting along socially-conservative lines. These lines follow the Texas Republican Party’s platform, which includes the following language concerning gambling:
“We oppose any expansion of gambling, including legalized casino gambling. We oppose and call for a veto of any budget that relies on expansion of legalized gambling as a method of finance.”
Gambling and sports betting opposition typically focuses on “problem gambling.” They are largely moral arguments rooted in religious dogma.
One person at a House hearing on gambling legislation said most Texas lawmakers are fixated on the “fraud, corruption, destruction of values and moral turpitude of the gaming world.”
Not all Republicans hold firm to the party’s platform, however.
Proximity to casinos a factor
Speaker of the House Dade Phelan has bluntly stated, “all my constituents gamble.” They do so by streaming across the border into Louisiana.
For Republican legislators who represent districts close to Louisiana and Oklahoma, prohibiting gambling denies their districts millions of dollars every year.
That export of revenue, as indicated by Phelan, could provide enough motivation for “border” senators to support casino legislation. Three on the Senate State Affairs Committee fit the bill.
- Sen. Hughes, chair, District 1, bordering both states
- Sen. Bettencourt, District 7, Houston
- Sen. Hall, District 2, east of Dallas-Fort Worth
Few connections to gambling on committee
With the retirement of Lucio, the list of senators with connections to gambling legislation is down to just one: Sen. Lois Kolkhorst.
In 2017, Kolkhorst filed SB 1970, which would have legalized daily fantasy sports in Texas. It didn’t pass. In promoting her legislation, she carefully noted:
“We must protect our liberties and rights, and that includes our ability to play a game of skill that millions of Texans already enjoy. Fantasy sports add to the experience of watching your favorite team, and I’m excited to work with my fellow lawmakers and the sports fans all across Texas to pass this legislation.”
Kolkhorst made sure to emphasize games of skill, separating her support for fantasy sports from support for casino games of chance. The sentiment is still encouraging for proponents of current gambling legislation. Texans will pin some hope on her ability to sell the personal liberties angle in committee.
To a much lesser degree, Sen. Schwertner has a connection with gambling legislation. He chaired a 2014 committee alongside Rep. Kuempel that examined the effects of illegal gambling in the state.
How support might break down
Synthesizing the above information, State Affairs Committee support for SJR 49 may look something like this:
|Likely Supporter||Possible Supporter||Likely Opposition||Possible Opposition|
|Sen. Kolkhorst||Sen. Birdwell||Sen. Bettencourt|
|Sen. Schwertner||Sen. Hall||Sen. Campbell|
|Sen. Zaffirini||Sen. Hughes|
Calling any of the returning eight members likely supporters is a stretch. There is just not enough historical support for such legislation to know how it will be handled by this committee.
The Vegas Sands PAC factor
The Vegas Sands PAC, which spent heavily across the board on casino gaming and sports betting legislation in 2021, donated $26,000 to Senate State Affairs Committee members.
The following senators received financial contributions from Sands:
Notable here is the focus on Republicans. This is in keeping with Sands’ contributions to its largest donors – Gov. Greg Abbott, Patrick and Phelan – all of whom are Republicans.
Building on the 2021 legislative session
For SJR 49, receiving a committee hearing is an important first step. Last session, SJR 49 never received one. It got pushed to the bottom of the agenda and died in committee.
Depending on how Alvarado and other sponsors pitch the legislation in the Senate, they may be able to get the committee to move it to the top of the docket.
Alvarado explained to PlayTexas, “we need to avoid making tax revenue the goal here.” Opposition can then simply fall back on its usual moral objections based on the Republican Party platform.
Instead, Alvarado would like to frame the legislation as offering “a new high-end form of entertainment that instills state pride.” If the State Affairs Committee sees merit in this interpretation, they’ll be more likely to pitch it to the public.
If the public gets a hearing, Alvarado is confident their appetite for legal gambling will come across. Should that happen, the committee may report favorably on it and send it back to the main floor of the Senate for further debate. That’s a lot of conditionals, but such is the case for all gaming legislation in Texas.
The current Senate has 18 Republican seats to 13 Democratic. For a joint resolution amending the state Constitution to pass, it needs a two-thirds majority, or 21 Senate votes. The November primaries may flip one or two seats in either direction, but it will still be a steep uphill climb for SJR 49.