On the heels of sports wagering’s crushing defeat at the California polls, a legislative push has been launched in Texas to give voters a say on whether they want to legalize sports betting and casino gaming in that enormous state.
On Monday, state Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Democrat from Houston, pre-filed Senate Joint Resolution 17, “proposing a constitutional amendment to foster economic development and job growth and to provide tax relief and funding for education and public safety by creating the Texas Gaming Commission, authorizing and regulating casino gaming at a limited number of destination resorts and facilities licensed by the commission, authorizing sports wagering, requiring occupational licenses to conduct casino gaming, and requiring the imposition of a tax.”
The bar for a constitutional amendment to be enacted in Texas is high. It must first be approved by two-thirds of legislators in both chambers before it’s sent to voters, who must then approve it by a simple majority. (Texas does not permit citizen-led initiatives of the sort that gained enough signatures to get on the California ballot.)
But when constitutional amendments have found their way to Texas voters, they’ve been quite successful. According to a July 2022 report issued by the Texas Legislative Council, since 1876 the legislature has passed 700 constitutional amendments — 517 of which were approved by voters
Significant obstacles to making ballot
While proposed constitutional amendments frequently gain legislative approval to be put to Texas voters, others never see the light of day — and there’s reason to believe Alvarado’s proposal will be met with considerable opposition in Austin before it can land on the November 2023 ballot.
Perhaps the largest obstacle standing in legal gambling’s way is the religious right, which holds outsized political sway in the Lone Star State. Back in December, Texas’ best-known sports bettor, the Houston furniture magnate Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, told Sports Handle he thought legalization was at least 10 years away, mainly because “there are a lot of religious groups that don’t like gambling.”
At the time, McIngvale’s forecast and rationale were seconded by several longtime political observers. But while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick remains an ardent opponent of gambling of any kind, newly reelected Gov. Greg Abbott recently signaled that he was willing to “take a look at it in the coming legislative sessions.” (It’s worth noting that in presiding over the Senate, Patrick has more direct control over the state legislative agenda than Abbott — or pretty much anyone, for that matter.)
Furthermore, polling has suggested that more Texans support than oppose casino gambling and sports betting, while a coalition of gaming companies and professional sports teams in the state have embarked upon an aggressive lobbying effort to get something like what Alvarado’s proposing on the ballot.
But even as legal wagering becomes more accepted on a national level, it would be surprising to see the tide turn so swiftly in Texas. Efforts to legalize betting typically take a few sessions to achieve success in even the most receptive political environments, and Texas’ legislature only meets every other year. Hence, should Alvarado’s effort fail in 2023, it will be at least 2025 before Texans are able to have their say on whether to legalize gambling, with McIngvale’s 10-year over/under call looming in the distance.