They say third time’s the charm. But if you’re a supporter of the Texas Destination Resort Alliance, hopefully they can make things happen on the second attempt.
The Texas Destination Resort Alliance (TDRA) made a massive push to legalize casino gambling in the 2021 Texas Legislature but came up short. Could 2023 be their year?
Recapping the 2021 legislative session
Texas commercial casinos are currently outlawed. There’s one tribal-owned casino far from the biggest cities in Texas and two other tribe venues offering limited gambling.
The TDRA is an alliance of Texans seeking the legalization of casinos in The Lone Star State. Backed by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, the TDRA was formed as part of Sands’ “all-in” push to get casino gambling passed in the 2021 Texas Legislature.
According to the Texas Tribune,
“Las Vegas Sands – the gaming empire started by the late Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson – hired an army of lobbyists and spent millions more on TV ads, all after an election season in which Adelson’s largesse was key in helping the state’s Republicans remain in power.”
Sands’ proposal seemed reasonable enough: Casino gambling wouldn’t be just anywhere in Texas. There would be “destination casino resorts” in Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth. They would transform Texas tourism. There would be a focus on four- and five-star resorts complete with entertainment venues, luxurious spas and destination shopping.
During the 2021 legislative session, Sands spent $6.3 million on lobbying at the Capitol, according to state records. Additionally, the company spent over $2 million more on a statewide ad campaign. Total spending topped $10 million.
Even so, Sands came up short – very short – of a victory. The question is why? Like many things in life, much of the reason the effort failed may have been because of timing.
Legislators in 2021 weren’t ready to expand casino gambling
The 87th Texas legislative session began on Jan. 12, 2021, and ended May 31, 2021. Sands’ legislation was filed on March 9, three days before the bill-filing deadline.
On the lobbying side, 74 lobbyists were registered under Sands. But that wasn’t until the end of March, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. While their House bill would get reviewed on April 14 by the State Affairs Committee, it never made it out of committee.
The chair of the committee, Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, said he viewed the hearing as an “opportunity to start the discussion” but believes “a lot of education” still needed to be done on the issue, according to the Tribune.
Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, said Sands’ effort “fell really flat. It just didn’t go anywhere. It was a bad investment on Sands’ behalf, and I think any future investments will continue to be a bad investment.”
He was also concerned with the negative social consequences of casinos, such as gambling addiction and sex trafficking. Further, he contended that Sands’ plans were an acknowledgment that those problems really do exist in the gambling industry.
TDRA trying a different tack in 2023
The TDRA was born out of Sands’ need to package their efforts in a different way. Just hours before that April 14 State Affairs Committee hearing in 2021, Sands announced they were launching a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to build public support. The company’s TV and radio ads, which ran under the banner of the newly formed TDRA, emphasized how much tourism money Texas was losing to neighboring states.
Fast forward two years. The TDRA has been hard at work adding both money and members to its cause. The group has pages on multiple social media platforms, and their website opens with a simple yet powerful message.
“It’s Time for Texas to Grow. Play. Prosper. LET TEXANS DECIDE.”
In 2021, voters were never given a chance to decide whether they wanted casinos in Texas or not. That fact is not lost on the TDRA. Much of its messaging centers around the idea to let the voters decide.
TDRA focuses on jobs and revenue
Jobs, funding education and helping ease the state’s sky-high property taxes are the TDRA’s specific targets this time around.
On the jobs front, by passing casino legislation, the TDRA states on its website:
“Each new project would create thousands of construction jobs and tens of thousands of permanent new jobs in new and existing hotels, convention centers, restaurants, retail centers and offices.”
In terms of public sector funding, revenue raised from casino destinations could provide funding for public education. It could also fund the arts, public safety and law enforcement, according to the TDRA website. The site also says that passing casino legislation “would bring billions of dollars back to Texas from bordering states, to boost the state’s economy.”
“Texans would see several billion dollars invested into the state and billions for local services they rely on.”
The average property tax rate in Texas is 1.80%. This is currently the seventh-highest rate in the US, according to taxease.com. With new sources of revenue in play, the state wouldn’t have to rely so much on property taxes for funding, which could allow them to be reduced.
It all comes down to convincing the most powerful leaders in the state
By having groups such as TDRA and the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, the odds have improved for either casinos, sports betting or both. At the end of the day, it may come down to convincing those individuals with significant power in the Legislature that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick has been quoted in the past as saying gaming legislation would “never see the light of day.” In a Dec. 30 interview, he said he saw “no movement” by Republicans on gaming, though what he meant by “movement” remains unclear.
Governor Greg Abbott, who was also staunchly against gaming in the past, seemed to warm to the idea in recent years. His press secretary, Renae Eze, told The Houston Chronicle recently that Abbott might be willing to at least consider the idea.
“We don’t want slot machines at every corner store, we don’t want Texans to be losing money that they need for everyday expenses, and we don’t want any type of crime that could be associated with gaming. But, if there is a way to create a very professional entertainment option for Texans, Gov. Abbott would take a look at it.”
A PlayTexas survey conducted late last year found that most Texans would support the expansion of legal gaming in the state. It might come down to changing the perception of what gaming and destination casino resorts would look like in Texas. And to change the collective perception of millions of people, including the state’s most powerful people, takes time.
Paddie is optimistic that gambling will be expanded in Texas.
“I don’t know whether it is going to take two sessions, three sessions, whatever it takes. My personal view is that [gaming] is ultimately gonna happen.”