Above: Businessman and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson waits for the arrival of President Donald Trump to a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, in Las Vegas.
Update: Adelson, who was 87 years old, died on January 11, the day before the Texas legislative session began.
When a big political player comes waltzing into Texas spending big money from out of state, it’s usually a good sign that he wants something from lawmakers. So when Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, spent $4.5 million to help Republicans keep control of the Texas House in 2020, heads turned.
While Adelson is known for cutting big checks—he’s one of the most powerful GOP mega-donors in the country—he doesn’t usually spend so lavishly on state-level politics. What did he want with Texas?
After the election, it became clear that Adelson was embarking on an all-out push to legalize casino gambling in Texas. In November, his corporation Las Vegas Sands started hiring some of the most powerful, well-connected lobbyists in Austin. The company declined to comment, though in early December, Andy Abboud, the company’s senior vice president for government relations, made the plans official. In an online panel at Texas Taxpayers and Research Association’s annual conference, he laid out the company’s hopes that Texas lawmakers would approve legislation lifting the casino ban, allowing for the establishment of a limited number of luxury destination casinos in the state’s major metro areas. “Texas is considered the biggest plum still waiting to be [picked],” Abboud said.
Gaming laws in Texas are among the most restrictive in the country, with bans on almost all gambling—including slots, table games, and sports betting—enshrined in the Texas Constitution since the Prohibition Era. Currently, gaming is restricted to wagers on dog and horse racing, charitable bingo, and the state lottery. The state’s three federally recognized Native American tribes are allowed to operate casinos with limited games, though the state has repeatedly contested their rights in the courts. Republican leaders like Governor Greg Abbott and U.S. Senator John Cornyn have aggressively resisted tribes’ attempts to expand gaming.
Abboud encouraged hesitant lawmakers to think “like you’re attracting Tesla or an Amazon facility or an entirely new industry to the state that’s going to create tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and ancillary benefits of hotels and tourism.”
It’s not the first effort to legalize casinos in Texas. Since the 1990s, pro-gambling coalitions have repeatedly pushed the Legislature to loosen the state’s gaming laws, each time failing to gain any political momentum.
But Adelson owns one of the most successful casino empires in the world, with locations in Las Vegas, Singapore, and Macau, China. He may have enough wealth, power, and prestige to unilaterally succeed where past efforts have failed, political observers say.
“I think it’s obviously the biggest play we’ve seen in Texas in quite a while,” says Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “The stature, the money, the connected lobby team all certainly increases the chance of moving a bill further than we’ve seen in the recent past. I don’t think this buys you success but think it buys you at least some committee hearings.”
Henson suspects that legalizing casinos won’t happen in just one legislative session, but after building up support over the course of multiple sessions. “Adelson put a lot of chips on the table. Is he willing to do that more than once?” he says.
The stable of 15 lobbyists that Adelson has brought on for the 2021 legislative session include House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s former chief of staff Gavin Massingill; Abbott’s former senior policy staffer Drew DeBerry; Karen Rove, wife of GOP consultant Karl Rove; and Mike Toomey, a former chief of staff to two governors and longtime lobbyist who most recently served as the director of Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas, which was charged with reopening business amid the pandemic. Toomey de-registered himself as a lobbyist to take the government position in April, but promptly left the post and re-launched his lobbying business on the day after the election, according to his disclosure records.
Over the years, polls have shown that legalizing casino gambling is popular among Texans. In 2011, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll that 56 percent of Texans supported the full legalization of casinos. Las Vegas Sands commissioned its own poll in November showing that 60 percent of Texans support the legalization of up to five casinos in the state. But the political odds are much steeper. Any changes to the state’s gambling laws require a constitutional amendment approved by voters in a statewide ballot measure. But first, legislation must pass with a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate—and that’s where gambling proponents have repeatedly run into roadblocks. Thanks to the ardent opposition of social conservatives who fear the so-called moral decay brought on by gambling, Republican leaders have remained firmly against loosening the state’s gambling restrictions.
But Adelson’s casino push comes as lawmakers head into a session facing deep revenue shortfalls spurred by the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. In past sessions, casino proponents have argued that the state’s gaming prohibition has allowed billions of dollars to abscond into Oklahoma and Louisiana, where casinos are conveniently located just across the border. But opponents say that promises of revenue windfalls are overblown and would not provide a sustainable new revenue stream.
Abboud argued that Las Vegas Sands’ model for casinos in Texas would build another economic pillar in the state, helping to ease the state’s dependence on the oil and gas industry. “Will they solve all economic problems? No. Will it stabilize the economy? Yes,” he said.
So far, the only casino gambling legislation filed is from state Representative Joe Deshotel, a Beaumont Democrat, whose bill would legalize casinos to fund insurance programs for those living in hurricane-prone areas along the Gulf Coast.
Who ends up authoring the Adelson camp’s bill in the Texas House and Senate will have big implications for its success. If an ally of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick authors casino legislation in the Senate, that could be a sign that Patrick would allow it to get a vote on the floor, says Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “If Patrick is on board, it passes. If Patrick is not on board, it doesn’t. It’s about as simple as that,” Jones says. A signal of support from Patrick, a social conservative who has previously opposed gambling, could also sway House Republicans who would otherwise worry about primary challenges from the right, he adds.
And if anyone is going to get Patrick to consider supporting gambing, it could be a national Republican heavyweight like Adelson. “If Sheldon Adelson wants to talk to you about gambling, you at least need to take it seriously and consider it,” Jones says. “It’s easy to say no when it’s Joe Deshotel and a bunch of Dems supporting it. It’s another thing when you have high-powered lobbyists with significant ties to significant Republicans.”
Read more from the Observer:
How We Got Here: Texas’ health system has been underfunded, understaffed, and unprepared for years. Here, COVID-19 found the perfect place to spread.
The Forgotten Children of Texas: Each year, thousands of foster children in Texas are shuffled into little-known “treatment centers” where they are frequently neglected and abused. State officials have largely ignored allegations of wrongdoing and calls for reform.
Bringing the Dead Home: Thirty years after Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, only a fraction of human remains held by Texas’ museums and universities have been returned.