Analysis: Texans might be ready for casinos, but lawmakers aren’t convinced

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A casino operator is trying to persuade Texas lawmakers to put casinos, like this one in New Orleans, on the ballot. Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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It’s going to take an extraordinary sales pitch to get the Texas Legislature to say yes to casinos.

It’s been attempted several times — often when money is short — but the state has remained resistant to major expansion of gambling since 1991, when voters approved the Texas Lottery.

But here they come, as reported by The Texas Tribune’s Mitchell Ferman and Patrick Svitek. After a generous sprinkling of campaign contributions during the 2020 general election, casino operator and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson has been assembling a crew of lobbyists to persuade Texas lawmakers to put casinos on the ballot.

Pollsters, too. Austin-based Baselice & Associates flashed some of the results of a survey done for Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands, in early November. Keep in mind that these have the kind of positive glow you should expect when someone is willing to show you the results of a survey like this. Michael Baselice is a well-regarded pollster, but his clients wouldn’t show this off if the numbers weren’t favorable. With that caveat:

  • 60% of likely voters support legalizing casino-style gaming in up to five locations in Texas.
  • About that many — 59% — would vote for those five casinos and also for casinos at existing dog and horse tracks and on the state’s three Native American reservations.
  • 90% said lawmakers should let voters decide whether to allow casinos.

That polling also indicated some of the best ways to sell the idea, which means you can watch this unfold with a kind of secret decoder ring. The word “gaming” is slightly but significantly more popular than “gambling.”

Saying state tax proceeds from casinos could be used for services like education, public safety, health care and infrastructure polls well, followed by pitching casinos as economic development that provides jobs in construction, entertainment, restaurants and hospitality.

The poll revealed a Texas streak: Respondents were strongly opposed to having the government dictate how they spend their money, presumably by keeping casinos on the other side of the state’s borders.

Voters were also warm to the idea that opening casinos here would keep Texans’ gambling money from going to casinos in other states.

The 2021 legislative session will be dominated by pandemic responses and budget woes. It will be held in a state Capitol that has been closed to the public for months and that, by all accounts, won’t be completely opened to Texans while the Legislature is working next year.

It’s easy to find forecasts of a limited agenda. The House and Senate are on different tracks when it comes to how they’ll conduct business during the session, but they are working on the same problem — how to balance public health and safety against the requirements of a very social form of government.

Their time together will be constrained by the precautions around the pandemic. Texas House committees might meet every other week, instead of weekly. Senators are talking about setting aside just two days a week for committees. The session can’t last longer than the constitutional limit of 140 days. Time is short in normal times, when there is no pandemic to restrict gatherings, conversation and debate. That’s harder now. Expect fewer bills to pass. And expect a lot of talk about what’s important and what can wait.

That plays against the casinos. Expanded gambling wasn’t argued in the 2020 elections and isn’t really an issue for most voters. The promoters have a lot of work to do.

There is always the chance state lawmakers will come up short on the budget — that they don’t want to cut spending on programs that voters want and that their accounting tricks don’t bring the ledgers into balance.

That’s when lawmakers start looking for money, and a search for new revenue has spurred every gambling expansion in the last 40 years: bingo, parimutuel wagering at horse and dog tracks, and the lottery.

All of this will depend on budget numbers that won’t be clear until sometime next month. Everything else might line up, but it always comes down to the money.