Advocates eager to make a second push at expanding gambling in Texas–their proposal fell through in 2021–have received the endorsement of a familiar voice. House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican elected for a second term earlier this month, said he would be receptive to backing limited “destination-style” casinos in the state.
Phelan says voters now want more gambling options in Texas
Texas commercial casinos are currently outlawed. With just one tribal-run casino tucked along the border with Mexico, Texas gamblers routinely travel to neighboring states to play at casinos.
Phelan addressed reporters during a media briefing at the Capitol on Jan. 12, telling them that he thinks voters are now ready to approve a referendum on expanded gaming options.
“This is about what the voters want. I think that the average voter would approve that in this day and age, and that has changed over the last 20 years.”
Gambling laws in Texas are notoriously rigid, outlawing most forms with the exception of lottery, bingo and horse and dog racing. Two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers would have to agree to put expanded gambling options to a statewide vote.
Strong opposition in Texas remains, usually based on moral grounds. Those resisting it view gambling as a sin, or a contributor to social and economic problems. This viewpoint is particularly shared by evangelical conservatives who hold a lot of sway in the Texas Legislature. However, numerous public opinion polls, including one conducted by PlayTexas, have found that Texans favor expanding legal gambling options.
Governor also envisions destination-style casino resorts
Phelan’s vision for luxurious and elegant casino resorts echoes the sentiments of Gov. Greg Abbott. His press secretary, Renae Eze, told reporters last year that Abbott would be open to discussing destination-style casinos in the state.
“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.”
That’s quite a turnaround for the governor, who said in 2015 that he wholeheartedly supported the state’s strict laws against expanding gaming.
Abbott softened his stance during his re-election bid in 2022 after opponent Beto O’Rourke voiced support for expanding gambling. That, and the fact that campaign donations from gaming interests flooded his campaign and those of other Republican leaders.
At any rate, overcoming some of the strictest gambling laws in the nation won’t be a walk in the park.
Patrick still stands in the way
It’s worth noting that opposition to gambling expansion is something the Texas Republican Party has built into its platform.
Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) has filed legislation to legalize resort casinos and retail sports betting in Texas this session. Unfortunately, the head of the Texas Senate seems determined to keep the measure off the Senate floor. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, seems uninterested in passing sports betting in Texas.
Recently, he told KXAN TV that he wasn’t aware of Alvarado’s proposed bill.
“I haven’t had anyone mention it to me, that they are interested in doing anything. A lot of talk out there, but I don’t see any movement on it. I haven’t seen any bills filed on it.”
Texas Sports Betting Alliance lobbying for legal sports betting
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has thrown his weight behind the campaign to legalize sports betting. His Cowboys are part of the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, a lobbying group made up of pro sports teams and sportsbooks looking to legalize sports betting.
The alliance’s other partners include the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Astros, Houston Texans, Texas Rangers and other Texas professional sports teams, many of which already have deals with sports betting companies and casinos.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has said he wants to bring a destination resort casino to Dallas. He told the Dallas Morning News that he strongly support’s Alvarado’s legislation, which calls for building casinos in Texas’ four largest cities.
“There’s a reason why Vegas is Vegas. And it’s not just gambling. There’s gambling in a lot of places. It’s the fact there’s resorts for families, for bachelorette and bachelor parties, for conventions. If you create a new arena, whether it’s for us, for us and the Stars or whatever it may be, and you make that a centerpiece? How cool would that be?”
Can lobbyists sway Patrick?
Three Texas heavyweight Republicans – Abbott, Phelan and Jones – are now in favor of legalizing some form of casino gambling or sports betting in Texas. That’s clearly a sign that opposition is softening among state Republican lawmakers.
It could be because of the efforts of major lobbying groups like Texas Sands PAC. According to Transparency USA, the pro-gambling PAC doled out $2 million to Texas candidates during the 2022 election cycle. Phelan got $225,000, while both Patrick and Abbot received $200,000. An additional $50,000 went to Comptroller Glenn Hegar.
Phelan has been the most receptive to gambling in Texas among the state’s “Big Three” politicians whose buy-in is needed to pass new laws. Still, for sports betting or expanded casino gambling to have a chance at legalization, Patrick remains the biggest roadblock.
Until he signals his willingness to at least allow a debate in the Senate, gambling options for Texans will continue to be limited.