Legalizing casinos, eight-liners — even fantasy sports — all remain long shots for now in Texas as state lawmakers prepare to wrap up their legislative work by the end of May.
There’s still time for plans to allow casinos, electronic machines at horse race tracks or eight-liner machines across the state to heat up, but observers say the push isn’t nearly as strong this year as it has been in the past.
“Most recent legislative sessions have seen an at least halfhearted attempt by the gambling industry to pass legislation that would allow for some form of casino gambling in Texas,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
“This session has been different, in that the gambling industry has by and large appeared to have given up any hope of trying to pass legislation that would open up Texas to casino gambling,” he said. “And this lack of legislative effort is taking place within the context of a tight budget, when in the past legislators have been more open to discussing the legalization of gambling as a way to raise additional tax revenue in times of revenue scarcity.”
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But one proposal — declaring that fantasy sports are legal in Texas — appears to have more momentum than most other gaming measures.
“The only potential bright light for the gambling industry in general could be the passage of [this bill], which is a defensive effort by daily fantasy sports companies,” Jones said.
Each session, proposals are filed to expand gaming opportunities in Texas with the goal, supporters say, of generating more tax revenue for the state. Opponents have long argued that casinos and electronic machines won’t generate and sustain the long-term revenue lawmakers need.
They fear that, even if limited, the number of casinos allowed would quickly grow. And they worry that the bulk of revenue generated at casinos would come from local residents who can least afford it — not from out-of-town tourists.
“Conservatives are conflicted between finding new revenue sources for lean budget years and the moralistic ethos that fantasy sports are essentially gambling,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Republicans tend to err on the side of being against what could be perceived as gambling for these moral reasons.
“Conservatives would have more trouble with their base in the next election than the value of the extra revenue from what may be labeled as gambling.”
Here’s a look at some of the gaming proposals in the Texas Legislature this year.
Should fantasy sports be legal in Texas?
There’s a bill in the Legislature that says playing and profiting from fantasy sports is not the same as illegal gambling.
This comes after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last year issued a nonbinding ruling stating that online fantasy sports is exactly that — illegal betting.
But state Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, say online fantasy sports is legal because it’s a skill-based contest where sports fans pay an entry fee, create teams in the sport of their choice and then gain points for their “team’s” performance, such as yards gained in football or runs scored in baseball. Those with the highest scores can receive money on a weekly basis.
FanDuel and DraftKings still operate online fantasy sport sites in Texas.
FanDuel and DraftKings still operate online fantasy sport sites in Texas. FanDuel is only running free contests here. DraftKing, which filed a lawsuit against the state asking the courts to declare that fantasy sports websites are allowed in Texas, continues to allow paid contests, accepting entrance fees, and paying winners.
There’s plenty of opposition.
“The Texas Constitution clearly prohibits gambling, except for four highly limited exceptions,” Rodger Weems, state chair of Stop Predatory Gambling Texas, told House members recently.
Those exceptions, he said, are charity bingo, charity raffles, the Texas Lottery and parimutuel betting on horse and dog races.
“Passing HB 1457 would constitute an illegal expansion of gambling, in violation of the Texas Constitution,” Weems said. “The other side wants you to believe this bill is something different than it really is. Don’t be taken in by a high-stakes shell game.”
Proposals are filed nearly every session to allow casinos in Texas in coastal areas, rural areas, even metropolitan neighborhoods such as the Stockyards in Fort Worth.
Many say they’d like to keep the money Texans spend at casinos in nearby states here in Texas. In fact, past estimates have shown that Texans spend more than $2.5 billion a year at casinos in states near Texas, and building casinos in Texas could generate more than $1 billion in taxes here each year.
We’re likely to see the Dallas Cowboys move to Tulsa before we see full-scale casino gambling in Texas, assuming the Republicans still control state government.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston
Even so, “we’re likely to see the Dallas Cowboys move to Tulsa before we see full-scale casino gambling in Texas, assuming the Republicans still control state government,” Rottinghaus said.
Nonetheless, bills filed this year include:
▪ Permitting casino gaming in Texas to generate funding for residual windstorm insurance coverage in coastal areas, and letting Texans vote on the issue, has been referred to committee. HB 2741, HJR 90
▪ Letting taxing units approve tax incentives to develop property for gambling remains in committee, as does a plan to prevent any money in the state’s economic development or enterprise funds from being used to help fund a facility in Texas where gambling would occur. HB 1252, HB 2644
▪ And letting Texans vote on whether the Legislature should set up a state gaming commission and authorize the regulation of gaming in the state, including letting Indian tribes conduct gaming on Indian land in Texas. That plan, which also would require Gov. Greg Abbott to call the Legislature into a special session to consider gaming proposals, remains in committee. HJR 55
Electronic machines at horse tracks in Texas have long been a source of friction between lawmakers and racing officials.
In 2014, state racing officials approved “historical racing,” the replaying of already-run races on devices with sounds and symbols similar to slot machines.
Supporters said this would help struggling racetracks compete with out-of-state operations. Opponents maintained the machines could bring a form of casino-style gambling to Texas.
Racing officials and conservative lawmakers butted heads over the issue until the Racing Commission voted last year — amid concerns it would lose state funding — to end historical racing in Texas.
This year, state Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, filed HB 3926, which some say would essentially allow the same thing, but call it “purpose-driven parimutuel wagering.” State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, is among the co-sponsors.
The measure, which dedicates some proceeds to charities to buy body armor for law enforcers and boost death benefits for spouses and families of law enforcers who die in the line of duty, appears to be headed to the Texas House for consideration.
If the bill does pass the House, Jones said the measure may find much more of an uphill climb there.
There also are a few bills addressing eight-liners — electronic devices that offer prizes to winners — that frequently are found in gas stations and other areas across the state.
In Texas, playing eight-liners for cash is illegal, and non-cash prizes are allowed only if they are worth less than $5. Law officials periodically raid these establishments, often confiscating the machines.
There also is a plan regarding criminal offenses on all gambling devices, including eight-liners, which has been referred to a committee for review. SB 106
The Texas Lottery has long been a target for conservative lawmakers.
Lawmakers and Texans alike green-lighted the lottery in the early 1990s, hoping to generate revenue as the state faced a huge budget shortfall.
Since the Texas Lottery began, $25 billion has been generated in revenue for the state, including more than $20 billion for Texas public education and more than $77 million for Texas veterans, lottery records show.
This session, proposed cuts to the Lottery Commission’s budget have officials worried that ticket sales could drop as a result, which means less money would be given back to the state.
The Texas Legislature wraps up business May 29.
At issue is a proposed $18 million reduction to the lottery budget in the Senate and a proposed $6 million cut in the House over the next two years. Both chambers have passed budgets, which now will be hammered out in a conference committee where lawmakers will craft a final version.
Lottery officials say the Senate’s proposed cuts in advertising, marketing and promotions could bring a loss of about $108 million in revenue to the Foundation School Fund, and the House’s cuts could reduce revenue to the school fund by $20 million.
“The Legislature should de-criminalize or legalize all gaming because the state of Texas is in the gaming industry with the lottery,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “The state urges us to play the lottery but no casinos, fantasy sports, etc.
“The lottery is a complete game of chance and that standard is used to deprive citizens of other gaming opportunities,” he said. “I believe that what is stopping the passage of other gaming is the lobbying from other states/casinos etc. that simply do not want competition.”