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‘Great uniter’: Gambling and sports legalization proposal has widespread support among Texas voters

Stokpic via Pixabay

Gambling has long been outlawed in Texas. That’s because the Texas Constitution prohibits“lotteries and gift enterprises,” except for charitable actives and state lotteries.

But that could change. A proposed constitutional amendment, known as Senate Joint Resolution 17, would allow for expanded gambling in the state. That’s if it makes it through the Legislature. Then, the constitutional amendment would be put on the ballot for voters to decide.

A new poll from the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs looked at how Texans feel about the measure. Renée Cross, senior executive director & researcher at the Hobby School, spoke with the Texas Standard about what their polling found.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: It looks like Senate Joint Resolution 17 would allow for several gambling-related activities. Can you tell us a little bit more about what’s actually proposed here? 

Renée Cross: Yes, this bill by Houston-area state Sen. Carol Alvarado allows for very specific components. There’s a creation of one destination casino resort in each of the four large metro areas: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Limited casino gambling would be allowed, and existing horse racetracks and greyhound racetracks and slot machines and casino gambling would be allowed on three different tribal land areas. And lastly, sports betting would be allowed.

There are a lot of specifics here, but also a lot of room to maneuver should the casinos get their way in convincing lawmakers to let them build here in Texas big-time. I should note that this, as I understand it, would be a constitutional amendment vote, and that would mean what? It would be put on the ballot for voters to decide? 

That is correct. It would have to pass both the House and the Senate, and then it would go to the voters this November.

Well, so we’re talking about public opinion perhaps being a determinative factor here. What did you find out about how Texas voters feel about this measure? 

Well, who would have thought that gambling would be the great uniter in Texas? But the survey certainly has shown this to be an item that is of overwhelming majority interest: 75% of Texans overall support SJR 17. And then when we break it down by various sociodemographic components, it remains high whether we’re talking race, ethnicity, gender, partisanship, you name it. For example, 78% of men, 72% of women support it. Eighty percent of Texas Democrats and 72% of Texas Republicans support it. Even 69% of Texas born-again Christians support this bill.

Boy, now, that’s a number I didn’t expect to hear. I guess the appropriate question would be: Who exactly opposes this? I mean, is there anything that you can tease out of these numbers? 

Not necessarily from these numbers, but just from reading other sources that it appears that there are some, you know, very religious Protestant organizations that do oppose it, at least their leadership does, because it looks to me that membership probably is leaning the other way now.

Well before this ever makes its way to voters, as you were pointing out, it will need to make it through the Legislature. And as we’ve seen in previous sessions, legislation to expand gambling in Texas has not, for the most part, gone down that well. In fact, one might say it’s fallen flat. What’s your sense about 2023 in the 88th legislative session – do you think that things have changed at the Capitol? 

Well, I think that it has changed. I mean, traditionally, we don’t look at new revenue generators in times of prosperity, which obviously if we have a $33 billion surplus, we’re in a time of prosperity. However, Texas just isn’t the buckle of the Bible belt anymore. I mean, we’ve had in-migration from other states that have gambling people. Younger people are flocking to the state. They are in support of gambling. So in turn, I believe that the lawmakers are more open to it. Gov. [Greg] Abbott, for example, is one that has said that he’s open to this concept. So has Speaker [Dade] Phelan.

It hasn’t just been religious conservatives who opposed expansion of gambling. I mean, there have been a lot of concerns about organized crime, at least its historic reputation as being affiliated or associated sometimes with gambling. We know right now that there are several big gambling organizations that are putting a lot of pressure to try to enter a very lucrative Texas market. Do you see any of these past considerations about organized crime being an obstacle?  

I don’t see that organized crime is necessarily a huge obstacle, just because gambling is so widespread across the nation. And I don’t know that say, Oklahoma, has a huge problem with organized crime. So I don’t think this is a situation where we’re trying to boot out the mafia out of Galveston as it happened a hundred years ago.

So what’s the bottom line – do you think this year could be a tipping point for gambling in casinos in Texas? 

Well, I definitely think they’re in a more solid position than ever. Again, public sentiment obviously is overwhelmingly in support of this. You have big-name organizations such as those that operate the Sands out in Nevada coming in and lobbying for this. So I think the time is pretty good. The only kicker I see is, again, we are flush in money right now, and that is usually not when you would see something like this take place.

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