Along the path to gambling legalization in Texas, most people will point to the same sizable roadblock: Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
Lt. Gov. Patrick, as head of the Texas Senate, holds tremendous sway over what legislation makes it to the floor for debate. As a top Republican in the state congress, his opinions also carry weight across both houses of the legislature.
In the past, he has unequivocally eschewed the possibility of legal gaming, whether it be sports betting or casino expansion, famously noting that gaming legislation would “never see the light of day.” In the lead-up to the 2023 legislative session, however, he has remained mostly silent. That is, until a Dec. 30 interview with KXAN, the NBC affiliate in Austin.
Patrick sees no Republican movement on issue
Proponents of expanding legal gambling will likely latch onto Patrick’s comments with KXAN as portents of legal gaming’s future in the state. However, in this case, while his comments seem dismissive, they lack the personal opposition people associate with his views on the topic.
To turn to an analysis of the KXAN interview with Patrick, the only real comment of substance to come out of it was Patrick’s statement that he has seen “no movement” from Republicans on gaming legislation. What he meant by “movement” is unclear. Still, KXAN – and the Houston Chronicle, which subsequently picked up the story – assumed it to mean he had seen no Republican lawmakers make moves toward file gaming legislation.
Considering that interpretation to be correct, Patrick’s statement isn’t necessarily true, nor does it mean that gambling legislation isn’t forthcoming.
Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) has already pre-filed legislation which would legalize resort casinos and retail sports betting in the state. Further legislation allowing for the legalization of online sports betting is certainly coming as well, though no sponsors have been named. Regardless of the sponsor for that legislation, the issue of legal gambling will be put before committees and potentially reach the floor for debate in both houses.
Moreover, Sen. Alvarado will continue to partner with Rep. John Kuempel (R-Seguin) in the Texas House in filing the same casino legislation as they did in 2021. Before that, she had partnered with Kuempel’s father in previous iterations of her casino legislation, establishing a line of bipartisan support that goes back more than a decade.
In this light, Patrick’s comments sound cynical but not entirely combative.
Patrick is no stranger to pro-gaming campaign contributions
The Las Vegas-based Sands PAC, fueled by the late Sheldon Adelson and his surviving wife, Miriam Adelson, has been funneling money to Texas legislators for three years. In that time, it’s biggest recipient has been Patrick (through his PAC, Texans for Dan Patrick). He has received $2.5 million from Sands.
What that money does for Patrick’s stance on gaming is left to speculation, but it does tell us that he is certainly not ignoring the issue.
Considering his pro-gaming endorsements and comparing his previous position that gaming legislation wouldn’t see the light of day with his recent statement that he has seen no movement on legal gaming suggest a transition from active dissident to careful observer of the state of legal gaming in the legislature.
In this sense, perhaps Patrick has decided to follow the people’s will as expressed through their elected lawmakers. If so, a PlayTexas survey recently found that Texans, by a significant margin, would like to see the expansion of legal gaming in the state. These findings mirror prior surveys by the University of Texas and Texas Tech.
Lobbying efforts have advanced legal gambling cause since 2021
In the two years since the last legislative session where gaming legislation didn’t receive a hearing in the Senate, lobbyists have remained in Austin. They’ve made it their business to contact legislators and educate them on the pitfalls of the illegal market.
Cara Gustafson, spokesperson for the Sports Betting Alliance, spoke with PlayTexas in September, explaining that legislators going into 2021 lacked a clear picture of the expansive offshore gaming market. She expressed confidence that many now had a better understanding of just how pervasive and pernicious the illegal market could be and would be ready to reconsider legal gaming in this new light.
Currently, over 300 gaming lobbyists have descended on Austin, making it the largest contingent for any issue facing the legislature this session.
March 10 is deadline for filing legislation
Real movement on gaming legislation won’t come until March 10, the deadline for filing legislation for this legislative session. Committee hearings for casino and sports betting legislation will likely come in late March or early April, and PlayTexas will continue covering the evolving situation in Austin until then.