Texas House passes online sports betting but measure faces long odds at Senate

The Texas House has approved an online sports betting measure that would let voters decide whether to legalize the activity. HJR 102, which was greenlighted in a dramatic vote on Thursday, will now move on to the Senate for further consideration. A resolution to let voters decide whether to approve casino gambling, however, was delayed and faces its deadline today.

While House Joint Resolution 102 managed to secure the 100 votes it needed to pass, HJR 155, which is the casino gambling proposal, proved more divisive among lawmakers. Final consideration of that measure was delayed until Friday (today), as supporters continue working to find the 100 votes they require with little time left.

Legal sports betting takes a step forward

Getting the sports betting proposal out of the House proved a difficult task. On Wednesday, the measure failed to secure the two-thirds majority that proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution need to make it out of the chamber, coming up short with 97 votes in favor. Its fate remained uncertain on Thursday, but the legislation finally managed to clear the 100-vote threshold after several members changed their votes. At least five that voted “no” a day earlier voted “yes” on HJR 102 on Thursday.

Rep. Jeff Leach, the author of the sports betting legislation, gave an emphatic final speech on the House floor Thursday, reports The Texas Tribune, arguing that many Texans are already betting on sports – only that on an illegal basis. “Every single one of them are criminals […] under Texas law, and I believe that we should pass this bill to let them come out of the shadows and to carefully and safely regulate this,” Leach said.

Rep. Jeff Leach

The sports wagering proposal is backed by a coalition of Texas pro sports teams and betting operators. Proponents argue that the bill is not “an expansion of gambling” but an effort to regulate illegal online sports betting already taking place across the Lone Star State, and that the move would give Texans freedom over how to spend their money while further driving revenue for property tax relief.

The resolution would allow Texas sports franchises, the PGA Tour, and Class I racetracks to get licensed and contract out with wagering operators. During the debate, Leach accepted amendments to the underlying legislation that included the National Lacrosse League in the proposal and raised the gaming tax from 10% to 15%.

Casino proposal leads to heated debate

HJR 155 would create at least eight licenses for casino gambling through “destination resorts” across Texas. The bill would give preference to metropolitan areas where horse racing has already been authorized, and would also legalize sports betting. Seen as a major expansion of gambling, the resolution proved far more controversial among lawmakers than HJR 102.

In an attempt to convince other House members, the proposal’s author, Rep. Charlie Geren, argued the legislation would lead to “world-class casinos” with amenities beyond gambling such as shopping and entertainment. He also stressed the plan would only happen if voters decide to approve it. “This is really about letting your voters decide,” Geren told his colleagues, as per The Texas Tribune.

Rep. Charlie Geren

The bill was amended to set aside 80% of new tax revenue from casinos for increased salaries for public school teachers and for cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers. Amendments to address geographic concerns, including one that would make Austin eligible for a casino license, were also accepted

However, opposition was encountered on several fronts, and the legislation didn’t reach the 100-vote threshold despite the gambling industry’s intensive lobbying to get it to the finish line. Casino giant Las Vegas Sands has been especially prolific, having spent millions of dollars on lobbyists, TV ads and campaign contributions.

Bills to face long odds at Senate

While the House votes are the most progress gaming advocates have made since launching their lobbying efforts two years ago, getting the bills to the voters is an entirely different battle. Both HJR 102 and the casino gambling bill face long odds in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has repeatedly said there is not enough support for their passage

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

“Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick indicated months ago that he was opposed to this legislation and didn’t see it as having any prospects in the Senate,” Rice University political science professor Mark Jones told ABC13 on Thursday. “He has said nothing about changing his mind, and the votes in the House, where Republicans are split, would solidify Patrick’s decision to stick to his guns and block this legislation. He has said from the beginning that he’s only going to pass it if it has overwhelming Republican support, so when this bill goes to the Senate, it’s dead on arrival.”

While Patrick has not outlined any substantive objections to the proposals, he has repeatedly downplayed their prospects in his chamber. In the Senate, Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst is carrying the sports betting proposal this session – and it has not yet received a committee hearing. And as for casino gambling, Patrick noted that advocates did not even file a bill in the chamber this session.

However, Gov. Greg Abbott is now open to expanded gambling, after resisting the plan years ago. His office has said he is willing to consider a “very professional entertainment option” in line with the destination resorts many backers are touting.