On January 14, 2021, Representative Harold V. Dutton Jr. authored and filed two bills. One–HB 1121–would legalize sports betting and create the regulatory body that would oversee it. The other–HJR 68–is essentially a refiling of HJR 61. HJR 61 was a constitutional amendment that died in Committee in late February 2019. The latest attempt at a constitutional amendment allowing sports betting could it on the ballot at the end of 2021.
The odds of it passing in 2021 are poor. Texas is a notoriously anti-gambling state. Evangelical voters are important to Republican lawmakers who want to stay in power. So, Texans are going to struggle to convince their elected officials to accept sports betting. Oklahoma tribes who attract many Texas gamblers also don’t want to lose their monopolies on sports betting. So, expect some anti-gambling money from them, too.
However, gambling and sports magnates are targeting Texas in a long-term campaign to bring gambling to the Lone Star State. There are a few ways that sports betting could come to Texas, and a few begin with sports betting legalization. Expanding other types of gaming could open the door to sports betting legalization later. Sports betting may come to Texas one day. But it probably won’t be this year.
Why Sports Betting Is So Hard To Legalize In Texas
There are two major obstacles to legalizing sports betting in Texas: changing the state constitution and anti-gambling attitudes.
Changing the constitution requires two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers to go to the voters. After that, the measure requires a simple majority–more than half of the voters need to ratify it. That’s a significant hurdle for representatives in a conservative state with conservative lawmakers who want to stay in power.
But passing the amendment is another ball game altogether. According to the National Council on Problem Gaming, 53% of Texas respondents viewed gambling as immoral. Factor anti-gambling campaigns in to boost that number and gambling proponents have their work cut out for them.
What Rep. Dutton’s Sports Betting Bill Offers Texans
Rep. Dutton’s sports betting bill would create an online-only market like Tennessee’s. Texas has no commercial casinos, so a casino-based licensing system is out of the question. Instead, HB 1121 calls for a gaming commission similar to other states. The commission would grant licenses and eliminate the need for a traditional land-based partner. Here are some of the bill’s other highlights:
- 25% tax rate
- $250,000 license application fee
- $200,000 license renewal fee
- Five licenses with two skins each
- No wagers on Texas college sports
No sports journalist would be surprised to see Texas proposing the lowest tax rate in the country. The licensing costs are a little high, but nothing out of the ordinary among other states with sports betting. Licenses and skins are low, which speaks to Texas’ reserved attitude toward gambling.
Critically, this bill also bans wagers on Texas college sports. If passed, that would eviscerate millions of dollars in potential sportsbook revenue. Football is a big deal in Texas. Even high school football was a big deal. (I was in high school band at a Frisco high school. I promise it’s a big deal.)
However, even that’s a compromise in Texas politics. The alternative was banning all college sports. That could be a condition imposed by conservative lawmakers who are open to sports betting legalization. But outside lobbying forces could make Rep. Dutton’s proposal look like the best one.
How Lobbyists Could Push Lawmakers Into Rep. Dutton’s Bill
Before he died, Sheldon Adelson poured millions into Texas’ senate races. He followed by beginning a lobbying effort to bring casinos to Texas. Since he was commonly known as a “Republican king-maker,” his money would’ve been influential in expanding gambling in Texas. However, he likely wouldn’t have been amenable to online sports betting. He opposed online gambling to protect his land-based casino interests. His wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, was involved in the casino business and likely shared that opposition to online gaming. Unless she changes her mind, Adelson money will likely only push for certain types of gaming.
But don’t count on Adelson money disappearing from Republican politics.
The Ensuing Tug-Of-War
All that complicates Rep. Dutton’s efforts to legalize sports betting in Texas. If Dr. Adelson continues pushing for casinos in Texas, online gambling opposition will likely remain strong in the state. However, sports magnates like Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones would realize immense value from mobile sports betting. In an interview with ESPN, Mark Cuban said that PASPA’s repeal “doubled the value of professional sports franchises in a second.” Jerry Jones probably agrees.
They may lobby for more skins in Texas, allowing more sportsbooks to compete. Adding more sportsbooks than necessary could make social conservatives sweat. They may even adopt Rep. Dutton’s more modest proposal of 10 skins instead of a push for 15 or 20. Extreme demands from business magnates and the Adelson casino empire would put Texas Republicans in a bizarre tug-of-war.
Texas Sports Betting Depends On Three People
Rep. Dutton could find a way to take advantage of these competing forces. However, conflict in the Republican Party doesn’t guarantee Democratic success. For all the business-friendly conditions in Rep. Dutton’s bill, it won’t go anywhere without the blessings of Republican leadership. Specifically:
- Governor Greg Abbott
- Lieutenant Governor and President of the Senate of Texas Dan Patrick
- Attorney General Ken Paxton
If Greg Abbot, Dan Patrick, and Ken Paxton aren’t on the sports betting train, it’s not leaving the station. Traditionally, they’ve opposed gambling. But Texas’ 2021 budget deficit could nudge them in toward a more sports betting-friendly direction.
Especially if it takes tax increases off the legislative table.
Don’t expect an overnight change in the Lone Star State. Conservative lawmakers won’t pull a 180 on gambling because money’s tight. But this is the start of a series of nudges that could bring gambling to Texas–in many, many years.