Gambling in Texas? Don't bet on it anytime soon

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The pandemic is leaving the state of Texas with a budget shortfall, and some say the way to close the gap is to bring gambling to Texas.

The state is projecting the biannual budget to be $11 billion less than original estimates, largely due to COVID-19. While state leaders have already said it won't happen, an eye-opening survey that shows gambling in Texas is becoming a popular idea.

A University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs survey found 65% of Democrats, 53% of Republicans and 60% of independents say they favor gambling in the state.

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The move could bring several hundred million dollars a year to state coffers.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel and State Sen. Roland Gutierrez have already filed bills aiming to allow the operation of casinos in Texas, according to KXAN-TV. State Sen. Royce West, a Democrat on the Senate's finance committee, said it's definitely a viable option.

"We need a recurring revenue source. And needless to say, when you begin to look at other states, this would be a recurring revenue source," West told KXAN.

Lobby groups eyeing the state's coronavirus budget shortfall thought the missing revenue would be enough to make gambling happen this year.

Kirk Watson, who is the Founding Dean of the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs, said the budget forecast may be bad, but not bad enough to change lawmakers' minds on the topic.

"It makes it less likely that you will see movement on it when the revenue projections just aren't as bad," Watson said.

Even if two-thirds of the House and Senate agreed on gambling in Texas, and even Gov. Greg Abbott signed off on it, the measure would have to go to the voters in the form of a constitutional amendment before becoming law.

Those who are against gambling expansion say they do not believe the effort will get that far.

Rob Kohler of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas agreed with Watson's comments.

"I don't think the voters are going to hear about this question," Kohler said. "These issues are not going to get out of the Texas Legislature. There is not a vote or the votes to get it out of the Senate."

Texas currently has some of the strictest gambling laws in the country, but there are a few exceptions where the practice is allowed, such as bingo, the state lottery, and at horse or greyhound dog races. Through court decisions and legislation in the 1980s, three federally recognized Native American tribes operate casinos with limited games - in Eagle Pass, El Paso and Livingston.

Meanwhile, there is an expanded lobbying effort in Austin to bring casinos to the state.

As the session got underway earlier this month, the extent of Las Vegas Sands Casino's influence campaign in the state became more clear. Campaign finance reports that were due Jan. 15 showed that Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson gave $500,000 to Abbott in late October, making the casino mogul the governor's second largest donor for the reporting period, which covered the second half of 2020. Adelson died Jan. 11, but the company's efforts have continued.

"The possibilities for expanding Texas' tourism offerings are exciting and we look forward to working with lawmakers this session to present the potential opportunities that exist for robust, long-term economic development and jobs for the state," said Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands' senior vice president of government affairs.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said it won't happen.

"I've never been in favor of it," Patrick told radio host Chad Hasty on KFYO in Lubbock. "We don't even have a bill that has been filed in the Senate on the issue. When you don't even have a sponsor, it's not even a bill you spend much time on or think about. I don't spend much time on it because the members are just against it."

ABC13's partners at the Texas Tribune contributed to this report.

Follow Jeff Ehling on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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