Texas Capitol

An aerial view of the Capitol on March 23, 2020.

AUSTIN — Fueled by positive signals from state leaders, pro-gambling forces are channeling millions of dollars and miles of lobbyists’ shoe-leather into a well-planned legislative campaign to clear the way for casino gaming and legalized mobile sports betting in Texas.

The Las Vegas Sands Corp, the gaming empire founded by the late Sheldon Adelson, is deploying more than 50 lobbyists in the unfolding 2023 legislative session as part of an offensive that began taking shape immediately after the last session ended two years ago. Sands also donated more than $2 million to state leaders and scores of lawmakers during the 2022 election, including the majority of the Tarrant County legislative delegation, according to the Texas Ethics Commission.

“The reality is there’s going to be another big push on gaming this session,” Matt Hirsch, spokesperson for the Texas Destination Resort Alliance, said, adding that Sands has organized to amass public support for high-end resort-style casinos in Texas.

The Fort Worth-Dallas region is expected to be high on the list of major metropolitan regions that would be under consideration for a casino, renewing speculation over potential sites such as the Arlington entertainment district or the Fort Worth Stockyards.

“I’ve heard the chatter around diners and coffee houses in Fort Worth that if a casino was built in Fort Worth, I think everyone agrees that the Stockyards will be a natural good destination for one,” said Rep. Craig Goldman of Fort Worth, who chairs the Republican Caucus in the House, while stressing that that he’s not taking a position on the issue. The late Fort Worth entrepreneur Holt Hickman formally proposed a Stockyards casino in the mid-1990s, but casino measures have persistently died in the Legislature.

On another front, nearly all of Texas’ major sports franchises are united in a first-of-a-kind alliance to legalize and regulate sports betting, joining more than 30 other states that have legalized the practice since the Supreme Court gave its permission in a 2018 decision.

Banded together as the Sports Betting Alliance, front-offices for teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars are all joined in a common goal and have engaged a well-known Texas political figure to be the face of the campaign — former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor and energy secretary in the Trump Administration, said he was recruited by a friend at Austin’s HillCo Partners, the lead lobbying firm for the campaign, and sees his role as one of educating the public and not lobbying lawmakers. His core message, he said, is that sports betting should be legalized and regulated to protect consumers and keep an estimated $8 billion-plus a year in illegal bets from Texas out of the hands of “unscrupulous offshore bookies.”

The legislation would fundamentally revolutionize a day at the game, or trip to the speedway, by enabling spectators to place bets on their mobile apps through a betting platform. Cara Gustafson, spokesperson for the alliance, said teams would partner with betting platforms and spectators could not only bet on winners and losers but “get down in the weeds” with bets such as which player is going to get so many yards or soccer goals.

Overall, more than 260 lobbyists are registered under the subject matter of “gambling,” according to the Texas Ethics Commission, although at least some may be only peripherally involved. TEC records showed 53 lobbyists as being registered with Sands last week, including a team of at least four working out of a downtown high-rise about five blocks from the capitol.

Proposals for both casino gambling and sports betting stalled out during the 2021 session, but advocates believe their chances of a successful do-over in the current session have improved significantly after Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan told reporters that they would be more open to legalized gambling. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the presiding officer of the Senate, has been less receptive to gambling and hasn’t specifically defined his position.

For Texans to gain access to casinos or be allowed to place legal bets, members of the House and Senate must approve a proposed constitutional amendment by a two-thirds vote in each chamber, sending the issues to an election to be decided by voters. The details would be ironed out through enabling legislation debated by lawmakers.

With the Legislature barely 2 weeks old, specific legislative proposals and accompanying strategies are still emerging. Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat who pushed a gambling measure in 2021, has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would create the Texas Gaming Commission to oversee casino gaming “at a limited number of destination resorts” and to legalize sports wagering.

Alvarado told a Houston television interviewer that the measure would “be very specific” for creating casinos in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio and would include components such as a four- to five-star hotel and a complex for conventions, conferences and entertainment.

Opposition forces, including religious organizations and gambling addict support groups, are also expected to start emerging when the legislative pace begins accelerating after the appointment of committees in the next two to three weeks.

“I’ll be lobbying up there, visiting with members,” said Rob Kohler, a consultant for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, predicting that lawmakers aren’t likely to reverse their traditional position against casino gambling. “At the end of the day, like previous sessions, I sure don’t see the pendulum swinging their way.”

Russ Coleman, a Dallas attorney who chairs Texans Against Gambling, created in 1988, says he plans to focus heavily on opposing legalized betting, which he believes would greatly exacerbate problem gambling.

“An appreciable percentage of the population is going to develop gambling problems,” he said. Allowing people “to have a gambling device in the form of their mobile phone is not altogether different than tethering a bottle of booze to an alcoholic.”

Goldman, who chairs the 86-Republican majority in the House, said he’s not ready to express his “personal beliefs” on the measure and says it’s too early to predict what’s going to happen on the issue.

“I know a lot of them who are for it,” he said of his colleagues. “A few of them are against it. And it’s just one major piece of legislation that has to work through the process. I can’t predict what’s going to happen.”

Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the push for gambling clearly has “a little more momentum” than previous sessions, with “a substantial number of legislators” who “are either supportive or at least open-minded.” Turner said he believes that a casino gambling bill “would be good for economic development and jobs, but the devil’s in the details.”

Speaking as a representative of the eastern part of Tarrant County, Turner said Arlington and Grand Prairie would both “love” to have a casino as presumably would other North Texas communities.

Andy Abboud, senior vice president at Las Vegas Sands, told Texas reporters in 2021 that Dallas would be the most attractive spot for a resort casino because of its airport and tourism industry and because of the “bleed” of gambling dollars going across the state line to Oklahoma casinos, according to press reports.

Turner said North Texas officials might try to reach a regional consensus on picking a North Texas site for a casino if one appears likely to develop. Sands proposed four casinos in 2021, but the concept could be changed in coming days to expand the number or include other legislative players, according a source close to Sands.

In addition to opposition from anti-gambling groups, Sands is also facing scrutiny from within the industry. Jay Stewart, managing partner for Hance Scarborough lobbying and law firm in Austin, said he will be monitoring the issue on behalf of Boyd Gaming, a multi-state casino corporation based in Nevada, to make sure the bill doesn’t enable Sands to establish a casino monopoly in Texas. He also wants to make sure it provides for a “robust regulatory environment.”

“They spent a lot of money in Texas,” he said of Sands, “and any type of proposal needs to be a fair and open process.”

One key element in Sands’ strategy was to form a political action committee at the outset of of the 2022 election year, drawing down from an investment of more than $2 million to shell out donations to top state leaders, many incumbents in the House and Senate and some candidates seeking open seats.

Funded by Adelson’s widow, Sands’ majority shareholder Miriam Adelson, donations went to members of both parties, falling on liberal Democrats as well as conservative Republicans. Several also received multiple donations. Top recipients included those in the state leadership, a total of $200,000 to Gov. Greg Abbott, $225,000 to House Speaker Dade Phelan and $150,000 to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Tarrant County recipients included Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, $13,000; Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth $10,000; Goldman, $6,500, Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, $6,000; Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, $6,000; Turner, $3,000; Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, $6,000; incoming freshman Salman Bhojani, D-Euless; $3,000; Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-Richland Hills, $4,000, and incoming Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford, $8,000.

Goldman, asked in an interview about the donation, said the contribution will have no impact on his decision.

“I do not vote in any way shape or form for or against anything based on anybody’s campaign contribution,” he said. “People want to contribute to me and my campaign so I’m grateful. But I don’t ever look at who contributes to me before I take a vote.”

The Fort Worth lawmaker also said it’s far too premature to try to speculate on the ultimate outcome of what will likely be one of the session’s most contentious battles.

 “It’s way too early to talk about May 31 (the final day of the session) on Jan. 20,” he said.

This story was originally published by Fort Worth Report at fortworthreport.org.

David Montgomery is a longtime journalist who has served as an Austin Bureau chief for the Dallas Times Herald, Austin and Washington bureau chief for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and Moscow bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers. He also served in the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder and McClatchy Newspapers. As head of Media Southwest Freelance, he also reports and writes for freelance clients that include the Fort Worth Report, New York Times, Stateline, Texas Highways and other entities. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri.