Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan says he’s ready to let “high-quality” casinos operate in the state, after he and other elected officials received high-dollar campaign contributions from major gambling interests.
“I want to see destination-style casinos that are high quality and that create jobs and that improve the lifestyle of those communities,” Phelan told reporters on Thursday.
According to Transparency USA, the pro-gambling Texas Sands PAC doled out $2 million to Texas candidates during the 2022 election cycle, including $300,000 to Phelan, $225,000 to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, $200,000 to Gov. Greg Abbott, and $50,000 to Comptroller Glenn Hegar, all Republicans.
Dr. Miriam Adelson, majority shareholder in the multibillion-dollar Las Vegas Sands resort casino empire, set up the Texas Sands PAC in 2022 to help get casino gambling across the finish line this session. Sands lobbied Texas lawmakers hard during the 2021 session but failed to see gambling legislation advance.
The PAC also gave campaign cash to almost three-fourths of Texas legislators, in amounts ranging from $3,000 to $60,000.
The Chickasaw Nation, which owns WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma, gave Texas politicians $744,000 in campaign cash in the 2022 election cycle—more than double their 2020 spending. Abbott topped the list with $300,000, while Patrick got $95,000 and Phelan $40,000. Dozens of other candidates received contributions from Chickasaw ranging from $1,500 to $15,000.
On top of the campaign cash, PlayTexas reports more than 300 gaming lobbyists are currently targeting Texas’ 181 lawmakers—the largest army of paid influencers for any issue before the Legislature this session. Las Vegas Sands alone had 74 lobbyists working in Texas a month ahead of the session’s January 10 start, according to Casino.org.
The gaming industry is eager to crack the huge Texas market, largely untapped aside from a couple of tribal-run casinos.
Bringing casino gambling to Texas would require an amendment to the state constitution, which must be approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate and a majority of Texas voters.
Phelan has been the most receptive to gambling in Texas among the state’s “Big Three” politicians whose buy-in is needed to pass new laws: the governor; the lieutenant governor, who leads the Senate; and the House speaker.
With Phelan openly on board, Patrick is seen as the hurdle; he has consistently opposed legalizing gambling, saying gaming legislation would “never see the light of day.”
But persistence may be paying off for Sands, which reportedly gave Patrick $2.5 million over the past three years.
Patrick is now noncommittal, telling KXAN at the end of December, “I haven’t had anyone mention it to me, that they are interested in doing anything” to advance gambling in Texas.
Yet in November, State Sen. Carol Alvarado (D–Houston) filed Senate Joint Resolution 17, a constitutional amendment that would authorize “casino gaming at a limited number of destination resorts” and allow sports wagering. Alvarado has been filing legislation to legalize gambling in Texas since 2009. Texas Sands PAC gave her campaign $20,000 in 2022.
It’s unlikely Phelan would voice public support for casinos without Abbott on board.
Phelan told reporters it’s about what the voters want. “I think that the average voter would approve that in this day and age, and that has changed over the last 20 years.”
Recent polling shows more than half of Texans support casino gambling.
The Republican Party of Texas platform, crafted by grassroots party activists but routinely ignored by GOP lawmakers, opposes any expansion of gambling, including legalized casino gambling.
Phelan, a five-term Republican representative from Beaumont and senior partner at his family’s real estate investment firm, raked in millions in campaign contributions in the last election cycle, even though he ran unopposed in the 2022 primary and general elections. He was just re-elected speaker by a near-unanimous vote of House Democrats and Republicans.
Texans can find contact information for their state lawmakers in Texas Scorecard’s Elected Officials Directory.