By Aarón Torres
AUSTIN — Republican Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has filed legislation calling for a constitutional amendment election to legalize casino and sports gambling in Texas, including at Lone Star Park horse racing track in Grand Prairie.
Geren filed the legislation Friday, a few months after Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, filed a similar Senate resolution.
Political and sports industry leaders in Dallas and Fort Worth have been pushing for expanded gambling to allow casinos for years for the jobs, tourism and economic benefits it would bring to North Texas.
The Las Vegas Sands corporation and others in the gambling industry have hired an army of lobbyists and are spending millions to push their case in Austin.
Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, filed the legislation Friday, a few months after Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, filed a similar Senate resolution.
“Polling over the last year makes it clear that more than 85% of Texans want the right to vote on this issue, (R)epublicans and (D)emocrats alike,” Geren said in a statement. “It is high time that the legislature listens to the voters and allow them to decide this issue. I, for one, am not in the business of denying the voters of Texas their voice when their preference is so clear.”
Geren’s resolution is one of several bills relating to expanding gambling in Texas expected to be filed in the next few weeks amid a heavy push to bring gambling to the Lone Star State, which has long been resistant to making that move.
But now Texas is missing out on the wave of gambling legalization and expansion in states across the nation, and supporters say it’s time for the state to get in on the business. The national trend has involved both destination-style casinos and sports betting. Some neighboring states to Texas — Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma — already allow one or more forms of expanded gambling.
Legalized sports gambling has expanded tremendously across the nation since the Supreme Court overturned the federal ban on it in 2018. According to the American Gaming Association, sports betting is legal in 36 states, including neighboring Louisiana. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is pushing for his state to join the list this year.
All three billionaire sports team owners in North Texas support legalized sports gaming and their teams are part of a joint effort to promote it.
But it’s still too early to tell how feasible it is to get any type of gambling expansion in Texas this session. Past attempts have fallen short despite an overwhelming majority of Texans saying they support legalizing gambling. The lobbying push is also underway this session.
House Joint Resolution 97, which was filed Friday, would allow for up to seven casino destination resorts: two each in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, and one each in the San Antonio, McAllen and Corpus Christi areas.
In the past, one major argument for expanding gambling in the state is the tax revenue it would generate. But unlike states like Oklahoma and Louisiana, Texas has a booming economy and doesn’t need to turn to gambling to boost tax revenue.
But the key financial point to many casino gambling advocates is the economic development impact that casinos would have, including jobs and tourism.
The argument that the tax revenue could be used to fund things like public education or infrastructure is not as pressing this legislative session, when lawmakers will determine how to spend a near $33 billion surplus.
While the location of destination casino resorts in Dallas, Fort Worth and other major Texas cities is far from decided — Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wants one tied to a new basketball and hockey arena — the one place in North Texas where a new casino is certain, if any of the legislation is passed and approved by voters, is Grand Prairie.
That’s where the Class 1 horse race Lone Star Park is located. It’s owned by a subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation, which also owns WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma. It is billed as the world’s largest casino, just an hour north of D-FW. The Chickasaw Nation said in a statement it supports Geren’s bill.
“The Chickasaw Nation has long been active in the Texas economy and committed to providing high-paying, quality jobs for Texans. Given our commitment to Texas, we look forward to engaging with their Legislature about the economic benefits and tens of thousands of jobs destination resorts will bring to the Lone Star State,” the statement said.
Lone Star Park is the centerpiece of an existing Grand Prairie entertainment district on Interstate 30 at Belt Line Road, near Six Flags Over Texas, AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Field.
“The Texas Destination Resort Alliance is proud to support State Representative Geren’s legislation,” said Matt Hirsch, a spokesperson for the association. “Texans spend billions of dollars each year in neighboring states that have casino gaming, money that should benefit the people of Texas. These destination resorts will bring massive economic benefits to the state, including tens of thousands of jobs.”
Both resolutions are just simply the language that would show up on a ballot should the measure pass both chambers of the Legislature and make it to an election. The enabling legislation, which would provide details on how the law would work, has not been filed. Hirsch said he expects the legislation to be filed in both chambers within the next week.
Geren said he is not carrying the enabling legislation in the House. There is also going to be separate legislation filed soon that will focus only on sports gambling.
Gambling expansion in Texas has faced an uphill battle in previous legislative sessions because it is banned by the state’s constitution. In order for any betting bills to become law, two-thirds of both the House and Senate must approve the bill. Texas’ voters get the final say with a ballot measure.
But there have been indications in recent months that Republican leaders in the state are open to gambling. In November, Gov. Greg Abbott’s spokeswoman, Renae Eze, told the Houston Chronicle he was open to expanding gambling.
And last month, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told reporters that he’s open to bringing resort-style casinos to Texas. Phelan explained that he doesn’t want to see slot machines inside convenience stores.
The biggest roadblock is still Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate and could single-handedly quash any attempts to pass gambling. Geren, in a phone interview, said he has not spoken with Patrick about gambling. In December, Patrick told Austin’s KXAN-TV that he didn’t “see any movement on it.”
Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Local Dallas area officials offered reactions to Geren’s filing today. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said in a statement that he has not been consulted by state lawmakers but is open to expanding gambling opportunities in Texas as long as it’s done in a way that is in the best interests of the people of Dallas.
“Moving forward, the City of Dallas — which is one of the main economic drivers of our growing state — should be at the table if the Legislature is serious about advancing this proposal,” Johnson said.
Craig Davis, the CEO of Visit Dallas, said Texas’ voters want to have a choice in their future.
“We saw that here in Dallas last year as voters chose what was next for Dallas, approving a new Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and an investment in the future of Fair Park,” Davis said in a statement. “That collective decision will bring thousands of jobs, millions of visitors, and billions in revenue to our City.”
Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen said in a phone interview Friday afternoon that he has not had a chance to read Geren’s resolution but said he’s not confident that anything would happen this session because of Patrick’s past stances against gambling.
“The key is the lieutenant governor,” Jensen said. “Nothing is going to go anywhere unless Lt. Gov. Patrick wants it to.”
Austin reporter Lauren McGaughy contributed to this report.
This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas- at the bottom.