Will the Texas Lege Roll the Dice on Gambling This Session?
The gambling caravan is back, but it’s losing momentum
Alongside legal weed (and healthier stuff like, say, Medicaid expansion), the gambling caravan parades through every revenue-challenged Legislature, each session shinier and noisier than the last. This session was to be no different, but the death of gambling tycoon and ultra-Zionist Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson this week may slow that roll; his Bally's enterprises had been positioned to fuel and fund the aggressive lobbying and public engagement accompanying this session's casino proposals.
As veteran Lege-watchers can attest, gaming campaigns – including those behind the Texas Lottery, semilegal eight-liners, lightly regulated "charity" bingo, and pari-mutuel wagering at Texas' mostly deceased horse and dog tracks – forge unusual coalitions. Some legislators representing less affluent communities of color, particularly those in proximity to the tourist trade from Galveston to the Rio Grande Valley, as well as those with connections to recognized native tribes, are really into it. These are almost all Democrats and almost all men, who ally with Republicans in the shadow of Adelson, Steve Wynn, and other casino bosses. On the other side are many of the BIPOC women in the Lege, who care about social services and equitable justice, allied with religious groups; unlike most God-infused topics under the pink dome, gaming unites leaders of all faiths and levels of orthodoxy in opposition. That side usually wins.
With the pandemic throttling the usual high-touch chicanery of the Lege, and with the state budget being less bruised and sore and in need of a loving massage than was anticipated, the gambling drive may be over before it started, but at least some of the weaponry for a high-stakes campaign has already been assembled and may still be deployed. That's also true for sports betting; legislation defining daily fantasy sports (DraftKings, FanDuel) as games of skill, and thus legal in Texas, passed the House but not the Senate in 2019. Nobody from Texas has been busted for playing fantasy sports yet, but the option is there, so state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, has brought the bill back. It wouldn't create a real pathway, through regulation or taxation, to a legal sportsbook in Texas, but it would be a significant baby step.
Lastly, the decrepit state of racing in Texas means the Racing Commission, which is funded by now-vanished track fees, barely functions, and Sunset staff have recommended abolishing it and folding what little it needs to still do (mostly protecting animal health and welfare) into the Texas Department of Agriculture.