A sports betting bill passed the House and heads toward a Senate vote. (Courtesy photo | Adobe stock)

 Austin – State Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth dropped his efforts to bring casino gambling to Texas in the face of likely defeat on the House floor, ending an intense lobbying offensive by pro-gaming forces to bring eight destination casinos to the Lone Star State.

Geren’s constitutional amendment would have put the question to voters in a November election, but the Tarrant County Republican appeared before House members early in the afternoon of Friday, May 12, to announce the measure would not be presented for a vote in the current 88th Legislative session.

Asked afterward if the measure is dead, Geren told the Fort Worth Report, “Yes sir, it is.”

The measure appeared in trouble after an essential bill needed to implement the constitutional amendment was removed from consideration by lawmakers.

The chair of the State Affairs Committee that endorsed the Geren measure earlier confirmed that casino gambling was dead. “It’s over,” said Rep. Todd Hunter,  a Corpus Christi Republican.

The late-in-session struggle facing casino gambling came in contrast to the other major gaming initiative, a constitutional amendment legalizing sports betting that won narrow passage in the House on Thursday.

The two proposed constitutional amendments, both of which would present the issues to voters in a Nov. 7 election, were at the center of a multi-million-dollar push by pro-gaming forces to legalize gambling in Texas after decades of unsuccessful attempts. 

Two bills to implement the measures if approved by voters were also presented to lawmakers.

Rep. Jeff Leach, whose hometown of Allen was devastated by a mass shooting less than week ago, pushed the initiative that would allow legalized sports betting in Texas if approved by voters in the November election.

More than 30 states have legalized sports wagering since the U.S. the Supreme Court cleared the way with a landmark decision in 2018.

The sports betting measure received 101 yes votes in the 150-member House, barely enough to clear the two-third majority vote needed to pass constitutional amendments,  with 42 voting in opposition. 

Geren had planned to bring up his casino measure for an early afternoon final vote on Thursday, May 11 but announced that he wanted a delay until 10 p.m. as House members worked toward a midnight deadline for bringing up bills.

As the hour approached, the Fort Worth lawmaker then announced another postponement until noon Friday, the last day the measure could come up  for consideration in the House.

But as noon came and went, Rep. John Kuempel, R-Sequin, sponsor of the enabling bill for Geren’s constitutional amendment, postponed consideration until long past the session’s May 29 adjournment. Kuempel’s chief of staff confirmed the delay meant the bill was dead. 

Millions spent to push casino measure

Pro-gambling lobbyists seeking their first major victory in the Texas House scrambled to get at least a handful of new supporters while opponents hoped to kill the casino measure by continuing to keep the vote count under 100.

The Las Vegas Sands Corporation, leading the push for casino gambling in Texas, had a team of  lobbyists just outside the chamber in the hopes of pushing the measure to success. Sands Corporation contributed more than $2 million to legislators and deployed more than 50 lobbyists on behalf of Geren’s casino measure.

 “I feel like we’re making progress,” Andy Abboud, Sands’ senior vice president of government relations and community development, said Thursday night before Geren announced the latest postponement.

“We know the will of the people is there, we know we still have the opportunity to get the votes in the House and we’re going to continue to push.”

The casino measure that Geren introduced early in the 140-day session would authorize at least eight casinos, including two in the Fort Worth-Dallas area, rejuvenate the struggling horse racing industry and create a regulatory Texas Gaming Commission.   

A fundamental goal is to redirect billions of gambling dollars now going out of state into a legalized Texas gaming industry that would boost the economy, create thousands of jobs and boost tax revenue.              

Nearly all of the state’s major sports franchises, including the Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, and the Arlington-based Dallas Wings of the Women’s National Basketball Association, were united in an unprecedented lobbying alliance to help pass Leach’s proposal on sports betting. 

As constitutional amendments, the measures both needed a two-third majority of the 150-member House to advance to an uncertain outcome in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the chamber’s presiding officer, has signaled his resistance.  

Voters would have the final say in November by deciding whether to amend the Texas Constitution of 1876 to allow casino gambling and legalized sports betting in the Lone Star State.

Plenty of opposition to gambling proposals 

Lobbyists on both sides of the issue were scattered through the  Capitol and working the phones from their headquarters to shape the outcome.  Russ Coleman, a Dallas attorney and chairman of the 400-member Texans Against Gambling, said he sent an email blast to members, asking them to urge legislators to vote against legalized sports betting.

The Republican Party of Texas has emerged as a leading opponent of the measure, along with religious organizations and groups like Coleman’s Texans Against Gambling, who fear authorizing casinos will worsen gambling addiction. 

Rob Kohler, a consultant for the Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission, said that regardless of what happened to Geren’s bill in the House, “it doesn’t have a chance in the Senate.”

 But Sands’ Abboud, in a brief interview with Fort Worth Report, said the “will of the people” solidly favors casino gaming because it promises to create “tens of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars of investment” and would generate robust tax revenue that includes a big boost to education and teachers.

One of Geren’s principle selling points was that his measure would put the decision on gambling in the hands of the voters. “It’s time to let your constituents decide if gambling should be legal in Texas,” Geren told House members earlier in the week. “We let the people vote.”  

Gambling forces saw signs or encouragement at the outset of the session in January after Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan signaled that they may be more open to legalized gambling. 

Glitzy resort casinos would better equip Texas to compete with other states in attracting some of the largest conventions and millions of leisure travelers a year, according to an analysis accompanying Geren’s proposal. The resorts would include hotel accommodations, meeting space , entertainment facilities, shopping centers, restaurants, casino gaming and sports wagering.

Much of the revenue from a 15 percent tax would be directed to education and teachers salaries.  

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David Montgomery

David Montgomery is a longtime journalist who has served as an Austin Bureau chief for the Dallas Times Herald, Austin and Washington bureau chief for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and Moscow bureau...