BY ANNA M. TINSLEY
Legalizing casinos, eight-liners — even fantasy sports — all remain long shots for now in Texas as state lawmakers prepare to wrap up their legislative work by the end of May.
There’s still time for plans to allow casinos, electronic machines at horse race tracks or eight-liner machines across the state to heat up, but observers say the push isn’t nearly as strong this year as it has been in the past.
“Most recent legislative sessions have seen an at least halfhearted attempt by the gambling industry to pass legislation that would allow for some form of casino gambling in Texas,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
“This session has been different, in that the gambling industry has by and large appeared to have given up any hope of trying to pass legislation that would open up Texas to casino gambling,” he said. “And this lack of legislative effort is taking place within the context of a tight budget, when in the past legislators have been more open to discussing the legalization of gambling as a way to raise additional tax revenue in times of revenue scarcity.”
But one proposal — declaring that fantasy sports are legal in Texas — appears to have more momentum than most other gaming measures.
“The only potential bright light for the gambling industry in general could be the passage of [this bill], which is a defensive effort by daily fantasy sports companies,” Jones said.
Each session, proposals are filed to expand gaming opportunities in Texas with the goal, supporters say, of generating more tax revenue for the state. Opponents have long argued that casinos and electronic machines won’t generate and sustain the long-term revenue lawmakers need.
They fear that, even if limited, the number of casinos allowed would quickly grow. And they worry that the bulk of revenue generated at casinos would come from local residents who can least afford it — not from out-of-town tourists.
“Conservatives are conflicted between finding new revenue sources for lean budget years and the moralistic ethos that fantasy sports are essentially gambling,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Republicans tend to err on the side of being against what could be perceived as gambling for these moral reasons.
“Conservatives would have more trouble with their base in the next election than the value of the extra revenue from what may be labeled as gambling.”
Here’s a look at some of the gaming proposals in the Texas Legislature this year.
Should fantasy sports be legal in Texas?
There’s a bill in the Legislature that says playing and profiting from fantasy sports is not the same as illegal gambling.
This comes after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last year issued a nonbinding ruling stating that online fantasy sports is exactly that — illegal betting.
But state Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, say online fantasy sports is legal because it’s a skill-based contest where sports fans pay an entry fee, create teams in the sport of their choice and then gain points for their “team’s” performance, such as yards gained in football or runs scored in baseball. Those with the highest scores can receive money on a weekly basis.
FanDuel and DraftKings still operate online fantasy sport sites in Texas. FanDuel is only running free contests here. DraftKing, which filed a lawsuit against the state asking the courts to declare that fantasy sports websites are allowed in Texas, continues to allow paid contests, accepting entrance fees, and paying winners.
Raymond’s House Bill 1457, approved by a House Committee, appears headed to the Texas House for consideration. Kolkhorst’s Senate Bill 1970 has been referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee.
There’s plenty of opposition.
“The Texas Constitution clearly prohibits gambling, except for four highly limited exceptions,” Rodger Weems, state chair of Stop Predatory Gambling Texas, told House members recently.
Those exceptions, he said, are charity bingo, charity raffles, the Texas Lottery and parimutuel betting on horse and dog races.
“Passing HB 1457 would constitute an illegal expansion of gambling, in violation of the Texas Constitution,” Weems said. “The other side wants you to believe this bill is something different than it really is. Don’t be taken in by a high-stakes shell game.”
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