Texas casino gambling and sports betting: What are the odds the state will legalize it?
Janine LePoris starts her Sunday at a Cracker Barrel off Interstate 35W in Fort Worth. A few people sit in their cars on a windy morning waiting to join her and her husband on a charter bus they will drive to Oklahoma as part of a family business.
When they arrive, the parking lot of Kiowa Casino and Hotel across from Burkburnett is filled with cars bearing Texas license plates. It’s a lucrative business, one that some would like to see in Texas.
But Texas has some of the strictest gambling laws in the nation, with limited casino gambling and as one of about 20 states where sports betting is still illegal. If the parking lots of Oklahoma’s casinos are any indication, thousands of Texans regularly travel to nearby states to play their odds.
LePoris estimates that their family business alone has taken 3,500 Texans to casinos in other states.
“They all say, ‘We wish it was in Texas,’” she said.
Pushes to bring sports betting and expanded casino gambling to Texas have fallen flat during recent legislative sessions, including in 2021 when issues like COVID-19, the February winter storm and election bills took up much of lawmakers’ attention. Now advocates have about a year to regroup and educate voters and lawmakers about what they believe are the benefits of legal gambling — including millions in potential revenue — before legislators return to Austin in 2023.
Supporters are optimistic proposals stand a chance when lawmakers meet in 2023, but opponents aren’t so sure. The proposals have historically faced an uphill climb in the Legislature despite a majority of voters supporting gambling expansion.
North Texas is one of the areas that could be most affected given its proximity to Oklahoma’s more than 100 casinos and the region’s concentration of professional sports teams — most of which support the prospects of sports betting in the state.
“Their money is made here, they should keep it here,” LePoris said.
AN EXPENSIVE PUSH THAT DIDN’T PAY OUT
Texas has a state lottery, some horse and dog racing and generally allows game rooms — electronic versions of games of chance like bingo. The Kickapoo tribe also operates a Lucky Eagle Casino in Eagle Pass. Gambling on reservation land is regulated through the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
During the past legislative session, Texas lawmakers filed bills to expand gambling, backed by Las Vegas Sands, a Nevada-based casino and resort company that invested millions of dollars in the push, according to The Texas Tribune. The legislation would have let voters decide whether to legalize gambling, including wagers on sports, with the goal of bringing resort-style casinos to Texas. Expanding gambling in Texas must be done through a constitutional amendment.
Among the ways the legislation would have expanded gambling, metropolitan areas with populations of 2 million or more as of July 2019 would have been eligible for destination resort casinos, but the state would be limited to four such sites.
There have been concerns in the past of a “wild West” scenario were gambling opened statewide without restrictions, said bill author Rep. John Kuempel, a Seguin Republican. The narrow language this time around was deliberate.
The Dallas Mavericks have been working with Las Vegas Sands to bring resort-based casino gaming to Texas, owner Mark Cuban said in an email, declining to elaborate on the efforts.
“I’m the biggest fan of resort based casino gaming in Texas,” Cuban said.
A separate bill filed by Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican not seeking reelection, would have authorized sports betting if passed by voters as a constitutional amendment, with revenue going toward special education programs. The bill had the support of several major league teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, Dallas Stars, Dallas Mavericks, Texas Rangers and FC Dallas, as members of the Sports Betting Alliance.
Neither passed, though they did get a committee hearing.
Kuempel thought gambling revenue could be an option as lawmakers entered the session with an expected budget deficit as a result of the pandemic.
But the odds were stacked against the bill and another to legalize sports betting. Revised forecasts from Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar showed that Texas was in better financial shape than expected. The session was also packed with COVID-19, the February winter storm and other policy issues taking up much of lawmakers’ bandwidth.
“Things in this scope, how big it is, it takes time,” Kuempel said.
There were also political forces at work. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who oversees the Texas Senate and plays a key role in determining what laws do and don’t pass as a gatekeeper of sort for bills — predicted early on the casino gambling bill wouldn’t “see the light of day.”
“Usually most issues are two sided,” Patrick said in a radio interview in February. “There’s so much infighting and competition amongst all the people in that arena. That’s why it never goes anywhere. It’s not even an issue that’s going to see the light of day this session.”Patrick’s office did not return requests for comment.
Huberty, speaking to a ball room filled with lawmakers and members of the gaming industry during an Austin conference in December, recounted the push for sports betting and gambling in the past session. In the speech, he didn’t count efforts as a total waste. Lessons were learned, he said, and he seemed hopeful looking ahead.
As Huberty advocated for the bill, he recalled a tagline he used: “Don’t bet against me.”
“Fortunately, I didn’t place that bet because I would have lost,” he joked.
IS GAMBLING HEADED TO TEXAS?
Huberty was confident pushes to legalize sports betting and gambling would have movement when lawmakers meet in 2023. Unlike some other states, Texas lawmakers meet every other year, though they do study interim charges between sessions.
“I’m sure it will be introduced again, and it will be done,” he said.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, Beaumont Republican, wasn’t available for an interview, but spokesperson Enrique Marquez wrote in a statement that the issues will “undoubtedly” be raised.
“Speaker Phelan has previously emphasized that these issues are best viewed through the prism of being long-term commitments rather than short-term revenue sources, and believes they warrant a broader discussion on the economic impact that large entertainment investments can have on a community,” Marquez said.
Gov. Greg Abbott was not made available for an interview, and gambling hasn’t been a hot topic for candidates on the 2022 gubernatorial trail.
Texas Baptists have opposed efforts to legalize sports betting and casino gambling in the state. Rob Koehler, a consultant and lobbyist for the Christian Life Commission, doesn’t expect legalization any time soon.
“It has falled by the side for the previous, you know, 20 or 30 years, and as of yet, I see no secret bullet that they have that’s going to change that,” he said.
Experts have also pointed out that bordering states benefit from Texas not having legalized gambling, creating added opposition.Supporters point to the opportunity for consumer protections and regulation. During the Austin conference, proponents also expressed interest in offering resources for those who may experience gambling addiction.
For Kuempel and other supporters, the strategy headed into 2023 is continued education around the issue.
“Educating my colleagues. Educating the public of what it means. Trying to paint the picture of what exactly we’re trying to do,” he said. “My focus is capturing those dollars and keeping it in our state.”
New Jersey lobbyist Bill Pascrell III, who represents gaming interests, said he’s had multiple conversations with “top leadership” in Texas that there’s a commitment to moving forward on sports betting.
“We know we have a governor’s election coming up,” Pascrell said. “We understand that. I think regardless of what happens in that election, if nothing changes and everybody comes back, spot on, it’s moving. If there are changes, we’ll have to see what the new leadership looks like, but I do believe … this is not a partisan issue.”
But casino gambling? “I don’t think we’re there yet on casino or poker,” he said.
‘KEEPING THOSE JOBS AND THOSE DOLLARS AT HOME’
The Texas furniture titan known as “Mattress Mack” has a lot riding on the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl. Two million dollars more than most.
Jim McIngvale, more often called Mattress Mack, placed the bet on New England winning the NFL’s top prize in 2022 as part of a promotion for his Gallery Furniture retail chain. If the Patriots win, customers get their money back on their furniture purchases. Some might remember his similar wager on the Astros taking home the World Series 2021. If the Patriots don’t make it in, he’ll likely fly to Colorado, Louisiana or Indiana and place a big bet on one of the teams that reach the Super Bowl.
“It’s exciting to give people a rooting interest in the game and something that everybody wins,” he said. “The worst thing that could happen to customers is that the other team, that their team loses and they get the furniture they bought. The best thing is, their team wins and they get the furniture for free.”
But McIngvale acknowledges the money he’s betting could be going to Texas were sports betting legal — a policy change he’d support for his home state. He also supports legalized casino gambling.
“We need money for the school taxes. We need money for lots of things in this state, so why not?” he said. “Sports betting needs to be legalized in Texas, and it’ll be good for the citizens.”
The Sports Betting Alliance estimates sports betting could bring in $150 million in state tax revenue in the first biennium, and up to $344 million in coming bienniums.
Casinos could be even more lucrative: Their construction under a model like the one proposed in 2021 could lead to an estimated 185,000 jobs, on top of another 70,000 plus jobs for operating them, said Michael Soll, the president of The Innovation Group, a gaming consultant group with offices in Denver, New Orleans, Orlando and Las Vegas. Casinos in Texas could also bring $2.5 billion to $3 billion in projected tax revenue, he said.
“In addition to all of the direct, indirect, construction and operating jobs you create in the state, the first thing you’re doing is, you’re essentially curbing the flow of revenue outside of the state to neighboring states particularly Louisiana and Oklahoma, and there’s a value to that,” Soll said.
Soll predicted Texans who travel out of state would split their trips with casinos in Texas.
“It’s good to have different products out there and different ways for players to get there,” Soll said. “And also to give a variety of venues for different types of players to settle into.”
But Patrick, in his February interview was skeptical that revenue from gambling, including sports betting, would have a major effect on Texas. The revenue that’s predicted to come in is “a lot of money” but only makes up a tiny fraction of the state’s budget, he said. The latest budget passed by lawmakers totaled nearly $250 billion.
“If you want to pitch your casinos or you pitch your sports books, talk about jobs, talk about tourism,” Patrick said.
‘WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THE CASINOS? WHEN I WIN’
The charter trips to casinos in neighboring states are part of LePoris’ biweekly routine and a more than 15-year family business. She and her husband take people from the Metroplex across the Oklahoma-Texas border on Saturdays and Sundays.
For $25, riders get breakfast, bus ride bingo and raffles to keep them busy during the trip. Once there, they spend the day gambling and dining. Sports betting is popular when they’re in Louisiana where it’s legal, LePoris said.
Gwendolyn Davis was among the 32 people on LePoris’ Nov. 21 charter to the Kiowa and Comanche casinos in Devol, Oklahoma. The 65-year-old Forest Hill resident is a regular.
“What I like about the casinos? When I win,” Davis said.As she, LePoris and others headed inside Oklahoma casinos in November, the parking lots were filled with rows of cars with Texas license plates whose drivers traveled across the Red River to place their bets.
Standing outside the charter bus preparing to play the slot machines in a couple of hours, Davis recalled a time she won $5,000 about two decades ago. She’s not alone in wanting casinos closer to home.
A March poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that 57% of Texans supported casino gambling in the state and 29% opposed. Forty-three percent of those polled said they supported sports betting compared to 26% that don’t.
Ultimately if pushes for gambling catch fire in the Legislature, it will be Texans who hold the cards when they vote.
Amanda McCoy contributed to this report.