Sports-betting advocates return to Capitol with narrower bill, new Republican author

From left: State Rep. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, discuss a property tax bill on the Senate floor on July 14, 2021. (Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune, Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune)

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Advocates for legalizing online sports betting in Texas debuted new bills Monday that take a narrower approach than they did in 2021 — and feature a new author in the state Senate who is a Republican.

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The involvement of Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who is carrying the legislation, is notable because she is an ally of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is seen as the biggest hurdle to expanding gambling in Texas. The previous sports-betting bill filed in the last legislative session was carried by Democrat and got virtually no traction in the GOP-led Senate.

Like it was in 2021, this year’s legislation is backed by the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of pro sports teams in the state, racetracks and betting platforms. Members include heavy hitters such as the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Mavericks, the Houston Astros, the San Antonio Spurs, the PGA Tour and DraftKings. Former Gov. Rick Perry is also working with the alliance on the issue this year.

The legislation would ask voters to decide in a November election whether they want to legalize what the alliance calls “mobile sports betting,” or wagering on games online. That is most commonly done through phone applications like DraftKings.

The major difference from the 2021 bills is that the latest legislation does not legalize in-person sports betting, which would allow bets to be taken at the facility where a team plays. This change was largely expected as the alliance prepared for this session with branding that emphasized “mobile sports betting” and protecting Texans’ data.

“I introduced SB 715 and SJR 39 because Texas needs to bring security and safety into the world of mobile sports betting,” Kolkhorst said in a statement. “It makes sense to reign in all of the illegal offshore betting and keep sports wagering funds here in Texas.”

Like the 2021 legislation, the latest sports-betting bills would put a 10% tax on its revenue.

While Kolkhorst is carrying the legislation in the Senate, state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, is authoring it in the House. The 2021 House author, Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, did not seek reelection. Leach joint-authored Huberty’s proposal.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, carried the legislation in the Senate last time. He has signed on as a joint author to the most recent bill from Kolkhorst.

The Sports Betting Alliance is one of two major camps pushing to expanding gambling in Texas this session. The other is a group led by the gaming empire Las Vegas Sands, which wants to legalize casinos in addition to sports betting.

Neither camp made it far at the Capitol during its first try in 2021. The bills got committee hearings in the House but did not receive hearings in the Senate. Neither of the bills got floor votes in either chamber.

The Sands team unveiled its House legislation Friday, and it also tweaked its approach by making more of an effort to partner with horse racetracks. The latest Sands-backed proposal does not get specific about sports betting other than to say it would be legalized “only in a place and manner prescribed by general law.” It also proposes a “tax on sports wagering revenue” but does not offer a specific figure.

Patrick, the lieutenant governor, is considered the biggest obstacle to expanding gaming in Texas. He said before this session began that he saw no “movement” on the issue, though he has not commented on specific proposals since then — namely whether he could be amenable to just online sports betting. His office did not immediately respond a request for comment on Kolkhorst’s bill.

Kolkhorst has Patrick’s confidence as the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. She has also carried high-profile legislation on his behalf before, such as the 2017 “bathroom bill” that would have restricted which public restrooms transgender people could use.

Kolkhorst played golf at Texas Christian University, an athletic background that she cited in explaining her decision to carry the legislation.

“As a former collegiate athlete, I respect the purity of sports and feel SB 715 and SJR 39 will promote integrity through transparent licensing, permitting, and reporting requirements,” Kolkhorst said in the statement.

Disclosure: Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Texas Christian University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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