Gambling bills in the Texas House are generating competing narratives about their status.
One narrative spells doom since the bills have landed in the House Committee on Calendars, where bills go to die. The other suggests that by advancing out of the State Affairs Committee and landing in Calendars, the bills have made a vital step in the legislative process that no previous gaming bills have made.
To bridge these two narratives, PlayTexas contacted Brian Smith, professor of political science and associate dean of behavioral and social sciences at St. Edward’s University in Austin. He regularly contributes to state legislative conversations for national, state and local media, and his research focuses on Texas politics, third-party politics and comparative electoral systems.
Smith parsed the two narratives for PlayTexas, providing some statistical and historical context for the current state of Texas sports betting and Texas casinos, as well as some political wisdom on the legislative process.
The Committee on Calendars: Where bills go to die
Texas Card House owner Ryan Crow, a proponent of House Bill 2345, one of the gaming bills that has advanced to the Calendars Committee, provided the skeptic’s sentiment when he told Poker News that, “A lot of bills go to die in Calendars.”
Crow’s sentiment is not uncommon or unwarranted. Smith said that “about two-thirds of all bills die in committee.” This could be the standing committee the bill is initially referred to or the Calendars Committee, where it is sent after a favorable report from its standing committee.
Sports betting, retail casino and poker room bills have all been favorably reported from their standing committees and have been assigned to Calendars. So, what would cause them to “die in Calendars” as many bills do?
Smith identified a range of reasons for the committee to sequester gaming bills.
“Texas has 140 days to pass as much legislation as New York does in two years, and there are only 40 days left with the session ending on May 29th,” Smith said. “This makes space on the calendar very exclusive, and not all bills that get placed on the calendar will get a floor vote. This is what is meant by ‘dying on the calendar.’ The reasons that a bill does not get a floor vote and dies on the calendar are that it will not pass the other branch, there is not enough support to waste time on a vote, it is not a top priority or the Legislature just runs out of time.”
Senate indicates no movement for now
In the Senate, gaming legislation, predominantly casino and sports betting bills, has seen no committee movement. Senate Bill 715, the counterpart to Rep. Jeff Leach’s House Bill 1942 that would legalize online sports betting, has landed in the Senate State Affairs Committee but has been left pending since early March.
Proponents expected that SB 715’s sponsor, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, might help the bill’s chances due to her party affiliation and close relationship with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is gaming legislation’s primary opponent.
That hasn’t been the case. Patrick has remained unequivocal in his opposition. In late March, he told Chad Hasty on his KFYO Lubbock radio show that “we don’t have the votes in the Senate as we sit here today.”
If the status quo persists, Smith doesn’t see that changing.
“Lt. Governor Patrick and his allies will leave [sports betting legislation] there unless there is some incentive for them to move it up and out,” Smith said.
More about the “unless” clause later. For now, those skeptical that gaming legislation will die in committee can look to Senate gaming bills as their bellwether. As they go, House bills in Calendars may follow.
Moreover, the longer Senate committees overlook gaming legislation, the fewer spots will remain on the House floor calendar if and when they do advance bills. So, even if late movement in the Senate leads to favorable passage of Senate gaming bills, the House Calendars Committee may not deem House gaming bills high enough priority to schedule them.
The good news for House gaming bills
Despite the Senate’s inaction, what has transpired in the House does warrant optimism.
It is the first time in state history casino and sports betting bills have advanced beyond a Texas legislative committee, House or Senate. Smith sees that the favorable committee report “demonstrates a willingness to debate the issue in a larger forum, and if packaged correctly, could get a floor vote.”
The House committee hearings on casino and sports betting bills highlighted sections where clarification and possible amendments were needed. This kind of “packaging” could be a key factor in the Calendars Committee sending the bills along for floor debate.
Leach and Rep. Charlie Geren, the sponsor of House Joint Resolution 155 that would legalize resort casinos, said in the hearings they would be open to working with other stakeholders to better package their bills.
What also may move the needle for the Calendars Committee is what Smith describes as “calling in the big guns” to bring the bills to a floor vote. Some of these big guns, in the forms of Texas’s pro sports team owners, have already made overtures by sending Patrick and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan an open letter pushing for legal sports betting.
A tradeoff is still on the table
PlayTexas previously discussed the quid pro quo and behind-the-scene deals that could get stalled gaming legislation moving. This is the “unless” clause referenced by Smith.
The issue that might be the key bargaining chip: school vouchers. Senate Bill 8, a voucher bill passed in the Senate, has been placed in the House Education Committee, where it will likely get less than favorable treatment.
Further, the House recently passed House Bill 1, its version of the state budget, which included anti-voucher language.
The issue has mixed support, but more of that support exists on the Republican side. Should school vouchers prove popular enough with voters, Smith thinks it could be used “as a bargaining chip with a legislative priority that is stagnant.” In this case, Senate gaming legislation.
All isn’t lost even if bills die in committee
In the Legislature, there’s always a second chance, a possibility for resurrection. While unlikely, such could be the case for casino and sports betting bills.
“The governor can always call a special session to address legislative priorities,” Smith said. “Here, the support of Gov. (Greg) Abbott could resurrect these bills.”
Public pressure clearly would need to compel Abbott to do this. He has softened on legal gaming this year, but that does not mean he has prioritized it. After the last legislative session, a special session was called to address the 2021 winter storm and COVID-19, two grave concerns for all Texans. While public polls indicate wide support for legal gambling, the issue doesn’t hold nearly the weight as those issues raised in 2021.
On top of that, “Texas has money now,” said Smith, referring to the state’s $32.7 billion budget surplus, “but a downturn in the economy could bring this back to life at the top of the agenda next session.”
In 2011, the state ran a budget deficit but eschewed legal gambling as a possible revenue stream despite strong public support. With the increased pressure to expand legal gambling in the state and the attendant campaigns to educate the public, lawmakers could put their jobs at risk by ignoring the public in 2025.
“Elections have consequences,” Smith said, “and if public pressure increases, those who are against the bill now may not be against it in two years so that they can keep their jobs.”
In the end, the third time could be the charm
While the political intricacies at work here could mean that gaming bills are dead until suddenly they aren’t, Smith also leans on the old adage that “a bill needs to be introduced three times before it becomes law.”
Since gambling legislation filed in previous sessions never made it out of committee, 2023 really represents the first try. If we’re doing the math, that means that political wisdom doesn’t see expanded gambling in Texas until 2027.