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Thursday, March 4, 2021

GOP leaders have expressed skepticism about expanding gambling in Texas. But supporters see hope in the long run.

by Cassandra Pollock, The Texas Tribune.

 

Supporters of expanding gaming options in Texas say they are playing a long game this legislative session and remain convinced that the GOP-led Legislature could come around on the issues they are pushing at the Capitol.

The gambling empire Las Vegas Sands, which has mounted an ambitious campaign this year to bring casinos to the state, has acknowledged the challenge in getting lawmakers on board with such a massive policy change — especially after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick raised questions this week about whether the issue has enough support to make it far in the legislative process.

But Andy Abboud, Sands’ senior vice president of government affairs, told reporters Thursday that such skepticism does not impact how the company proceeds this session, and that he is confident the company’s nearly 60-member team of lobbyists can change enough minds at the Legislature to at least make meaningful progress.

“We’ll see how things feel toward the end of the session later this spring,” Abboud said, noting that gambling legislation could be filed sometime within the next month. “I believe that we can change anybody’s mind if we do it effectively.”

Sands was founded by Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who died last month.

A broader gaming conversation has played out over the past few months and as the 2021 legislative session has gotten underway. Aside from casinos, a push to legalize sports betting in the state has gained attention, with several Dallas-area professional sports teams, including the Texas Rangers, Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Cowboys, mounting an effort to push the issue at the Legislature, as first reported Monday by The Dallas Morning News.

Both gambling and sports betting already faced uphill climbs at the Legislature — past efforts have not made it far, and since both would require a constitutional amendment, they would need two-thirds support from the 31-member Senate and 150-member House to pass before going to the voters in the state to decide.

Other wrinkles have also surfaced over the past week. Patrick, the head of the Senate, said Tuesday he did not think sports betting had enough support to make it far in the upper chamber this session. Later that day, a report that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had decided to stop playing the national anthem at home games this season sparked immediate backlash among Republicans, and soon after prompted Patrick to announce one of his top priorities this session: a bill to require the national anthem be played “at all events which receive public funding.”

“[Cuban] just pulled the rug out from every other sports team in Texas with this stunt,” Patrick told Dallas radio host Mark Davis on Wednesday. “There were already people saying, ‘Well, why would I approve sports betting, these are people who don’t even make people stand for the flag, why would I do this?’ Again, because it doesn’t generate much money for Texas, it generates a lot of money for them.”

Patrick has argued that the potentially new tax revenue streams from expanding gaming would only help a fraction of the state’s budget, and that if casinos want to push their issue, they should “sell it on tourism … sell it on jobs” — a point Abboud agreed with Thursday.

“For [Patrick] to be cautious about it makes sense,” Abboud said. “Because unlike other industries, we need legislative approval and we need voter approval. … That’s why we’re building a big coalition and [doing] everything we can to communicate the benefits of the jobs.”

Patrick also told Davis that if the casino issue is taken to GOP voters in the state, “they’re going to do it for big casinos, they’re going to go for the full monty” — not just sports betting.

Abboud said Sands talks with groups pushing the sports betting issue “all the time” — “sports betting is … it’s part of the casino experience,” he said — and that the two will continue working together and “hopefully join forces.”

“None of this really works if this is a pain in the neck for legislators,” Abboud said. “So we’ve worked very hard to get as many of the existing interests here in Texas in the same boat, rowing in the same direction. And we continue to do that, and I think we’re about there.”

Abboud on Thursday said the company has also had productive meetings with other state leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott and new House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

“If they told us to skip town, we would,” Abboud said. “But they haven’t, so we’re here.”

Abbott, for his part, said in an interview last week he wants to “get a feel for where” members are on the issue. And Phelan has said casinos must be treated as a “long-term commitment” instead of a short-term fix for the state’s fiscal forecast. In a statement for this story, Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez reiterated that position, saying the speaker “has stated consistently that gambling will not plug the current budget hole.”

“Each member of the Texas House will bring a distinct perspective informed by their communities when considering proposals to expand gaming and sports betting,” Marquez said. “Members should judge the merits of each proposal based on whether it has long-term value to the state and their districts.”

Still, Abboud is bullish about the company’s chances — or at least progress — this session.

“Does it happen this legislative session? We will see,” he said Thursday. “Does it happen in the near future? It is inevitable.”

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