Texas gambling opponents ready for battle

(BGCT Photo / Kalie Lowrie)

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With major professional sports teams supporting efforts to legalize sports betting and one of the world’s largest gambling companies backing a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort on behalf of casinos, gambling opponents recognize the potential for a David-and-Goliath battle in the Texas Legislature.

However, veterans in the fight to stop gambling expansion in Texas are accustomed to being outnumbered and outspent. And they remember who won the biblical battle between a shepherd boy and a giant.

Formidable lobbyists represent gambling interests

The Dallas Morning News reported Feb. 8 the Sports Betting Alliance is supported by the biggest sports teams in Texas—including the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers and Dallas Mavericks—as well as online betting platforms.

The newspaper cited draft legislation that would open betting on sports—including college sports—to anyone age 21 or older. The article quoted Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, as saying it could generate “several hundred million dollars” for special education in the state.

In addition to efforts to legalize sports betting, the late Sheldon Adelson, owner of Las Vegas Sands, assembled a group of high-powered lobbyists to advocate for casinos in Texas. He launched the lobbying initiative after he and his wife Miriam first donated $4.5 million to a Texas account affiliated with the national Republican State Leadership Committee.

The Dallas Morning News reported Adelson also donated $500,000 to Gov. Greg Abbott and $25,000 to House Speaker Dade Phelan last year.

Even after Adelson’s death, the Texas Tribune reported Las Vegas Sands continued its push to expand gambling in Texas, hiring 51 lobbyists to advance its agenda and spending somewhere between $2.3 million and $4.5 million on lobbying efforts.

Concern about daily fantasy sports

Rob Kohler, consultant with the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, remains convinced a direct frontal assault by casino interests has little chance in this session of the Texas Legislature—even with all the out-of-state money invested in pro-casino lobbyists.

However, the threat of legalized online sports betting—in the form of daily fantasy sports by DraftKings and FanDuel—presents a challenge. If the state permits legalized sports gambling, it will open the door to Native American tribes operating casinos by triggering a change in classification under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, he warned.

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“With the recent action by the IRS in declaring daily fantasy sports a form of gambling, and subject to wagering excise taxes, the stakes this session are high to stop companies like DraftKing and FanDuel from trying to trick legislators that their legislation is simply an attempt to protect traditional fantasy sports leagues, or is a simple game of skill,” Kohler said.

“ It is neither, and the ramifications as it relates to moving the state of Texas to Class III federal gaming classification is real.”

Texans Against Gambling enlists lobbyist

To help fight efforts to expand gambling in the current legislative session, Texans Against Gambling—also known as Stop Predatory Gambling-Texas—has hired veteran lobbyist Ted Delisi, founding president of Delisi Communications in Austin.

A former legislative aide to John Cornyn when he was state attorney general, Texas Monthly in 2005 named Delisi one of the 25 most powerful political leaders in the state. In 2015, Ballotpedia identified him as a top influencer in Texas.

When he served in the attorney general’s office, Delisi worked closely with Weston Ware—then director of citizenship and public policy for the Texas CLC—and Texans Against Gambling when Cornyn shut down a casino operated by the Tigua tribe in El Paso.

Delisi said he looked forward to working with Texans Against Gambling again “to demonstrate the true fiscal reality of our state and the costs—economic and other—that come from the unneeded expansion of casino gambling.”

When Texas Comptroller Glen Hegar released his biennial revenue estimate last month, the shortfall was substantially less than anticipated, and Delisi noted Texas already received significant COVID stimulus money from the federal government and easily could gain $4 billion from the latest federal stimulus bill.

“Also, Texas has a Rainy Day Fund in excess of $11 billion. Texas needs casino gambling for revenue like Eskimos need more ice,” Delisi said.

He is the son of Dianne Delisi, former member of the Texas House of Representatives. His wife Deirdre, a partner in Delisi Communications, previously was Gov. Rick Perry’s chief of staff and chair of the Texas Transportation Commission.

‘Casinos and their phantom revenue’

Rodger Weems, chair of Texans Against Gambling, said his organization looks forward to working with Delisi to help lawmakers realize it is both unwise and unnecessary to provide a constitutional pathway to casino gambling in Texas. The “Texas economy remains resilient,” he insisted, adding the state doesn’t need “casinos and their phantom revenue to pass a balanced budget.”

“Casinos in Texas? Over my dead body, and I have no intention of being the guest of honor at any funeral,” Weems said. “There are a few times in life when it’s important to draw a line in the sand. This is one such time. Texas doesn’t need the crime, the addiction and the cannibalization of retail business that invariably comes when casinos come to our cities.

“We understand that our small grassroots nonprofit cannot hire an army of high-priced lobbyists, fund lavish dinners and trips, or make gigantic campaign contributions. However, our strength lies in the tens of thousands of grassroots friends and activists who know, quite simply, that Texas would not be Texas with Las Vegas-style casinos in our major cities.”

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