Gov. Greg Abbott says he’s open to expanded casino gambling in Texas

Once ‘wholeheartedly’ against any expansion of gambling in Texas, Abbott’s office says he is now willing to listen to casino proposals.

Gov. Greg Abbott is opening the door a crack to expanded casino gambling in Texas if he wins re-election.

While far from an all-out promise to turn Texas into Las Vegas, the Republican is now saying that while he doesn’t want a proliferation of gambling in Texas, he’s willing to listen to the gaming industry’s proposals.

“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,” said Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary. “But, if there is a way to create a very professional entertainment option for Texans, Gov. Abbott would take a look at it.”

Any attempts to expand gambling options in Texas in the past have faced stiff opposition in the Legislature, partly because of Abbott’s declaration in 2015 that he “wholeheartedly” supported the state’s strict laws against expanding gaming. 

Abbott’s thawing on the issue comes as his Democratic opponent for re-election, Beto O’Rourke, has voiced support for expanded gambling and amid a rush of campaign donations from gaming interests that have flooded Abbott’s campaign — and those of other Republican leaders — over the last several years.

But overcoming some of the strictest laws in the nation against gambling won’t be easy even with Abbott’s openness. Texas laws and the state constitution prohibit expanded gambling, though there are exemptions for a state lottery, some bingo operations, and horse or dog races.

Texas has just one Native American casino in Eagle Pass operated by the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, which is authorized and regulated through the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. 

But with the proliferation of gambling options around the nation and in neighboring states, casino gambling proponents say Texas is losing out on billions of dollars a year as residents drive to Louisiana and Oklahoma, where legal casinos target Texans.

In 2020, gaming companies applied pressure in Texas to open the state to sports gambling and even destination-resort-type casinos. That has included ramped-up campaign donations, an army of lobbyists and high-profile displays at both the state conventions for the Republicans and Democrats this summer.

Abbott has been a big beneficiary of gambling money.

The late Las Vegas gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam have combined to give Abbott $1.5 million in donations since late 2020, including a $1 million check from Miriam Adelson just last month to Abbott. 

Earlier this year, Las Vegas Sands created a Texas Sands PAC that has now donated $200,000 to Abbott’s re-election. And Abbott has collected $1.1 million from Houston’s Tilman Fertitta, whose Fertitta Entertainment runs the Golden Nugget casinos

Native American tribes with gaming operations have also been cutting checks.

The Chickasaw Nation, which runs more than 20 casinos in Oklahoma, has donated $350,000 to Abbott’s re-election, and the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe Of Texas has donated $160,000.

O’Rourke has been saying for months he is open to expanded casino gambling. 

“From listening to Texans across the state, it’s one, a very popular proposal, and two, it would also help us address some of the challenges we have in reducing inflation and property taxes in the state,” O’Rourke said. “So I think that warrants a very close look, and it’s something I’m inclined to support.”

Gaming companies have made clear that Texas is one of their biggest targets. Before the last Texas Legislature session in 2021, top executives with Las Vegas Sands were blunt about how badly they want into the Texas market.

“Texas is considered the biggest plum still waiting to be out there in the history of hospitality and gaming,” said Andy Abboud, senior vice president of government relations for the Las Vegas Sands Corp.

To make it happen, big gaming companies loaded up with lobbyists in Texas. The Adelsons’ Las Vegas Sands, BetMGM (whose parent company is MGM Resorts International) and Caesars Entertainment — the three biggest casino operators in the world — combined to hire 69 lobbyists to work the Legislature during the 2021 session,

And they aren’t done.

During the past summer’s conventions for the two major political parties, casino supporters were out in force with big displays trying to sell rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats on their vision. Proponents have created a group called the Texas Destination Resort Alliance that says they are calling for “state-of-the-art entertainment facilities” with five-star hotels and casino gambling that will create tens of thousands of jobs and help generate tax revenue for the state.

But opponents remain, namely the Republican Party of Texas, which passed a revised platform this year that calls for GOP lawmakers to resist those calls. 

“We oppose any expansion of gambling, including legalized casino gambling. We oppose and call for a veto of any budget that relies on the expansion of legalized gambling as a method of finance,” the adopted platform states.

During the 2021 Legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said any legislation to expand sports betting would “never see the light of day.”

Patrick said he personally has never been in favor of expanding legal gaming, but beyond that, there were not enough members of the Texas Senate in favor of it — which made the issue a waste of time.  

The pressure to expand gambling options has spiked since 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that had effectively banned sports betting in most states. That has triggered states all over the nation to legalize sports gambling that used to be only allowed in Nevada. 

In Texas, the ruling hasn’t changed anything yet.

“We are nowhere close to having the votes for it,” Patrick said in 2021.

The Legislature next meets in January.

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