Don't bet on Texas getting to gamble
Posted January 3, 2018 2:34 p.m. EST
AUSTIN, Texas -- Texans are unlikely to be able to plunk down Super Bowl or Final Four wagers with legal neighborhood bookies for the foreseeable future, even though the U.S. Supreme Court could open the door for sports betting nationwide as early as this spring by overturning the federal law that bans it in most states.
Observers consider it a long shot that Gov. Greg Abbott or the Legislature would support legalization of sports betting in Texas if given the opportunity -- despite a jackpot, in terms of economic impact, that's potentially large.
A legal, regulated sports gambling market in Texas could boost the state's economy by about $1.7 billion annually and create more than 9,300 jobs, according to a study touted by the American Sports Betting Coalition, a lobbying group.
Critics counter that it also could bring negatives, such as a need for more social services to help people with gambling-related problems, as well as increased government bureaucracy to oversee the industry.
Regardless, it's a debate that faces steep odds against getting off the ground in Texas -- no matter how the Supreme Court ends up ruling in an ongoing challenge by New Jersey to the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which effectively outlaws full-fledged sports gambling in every state but Nevada.
"The biggest base of opposition (to the expansion of legal gambling in Texas) is a moral one and comes from political conservatives -- and they are a powerful constituency in the state right now," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. So "you have to look at the chances being pretty slim at this point."
Republicans control Texas state government, and the official Texas GOP platform states flatly that "we oppose the expansion of legalized gambling."
A spokesperson for Abbott, a Republican who is running for re-election in 2018, didn't respond to requests for comment regarding his position on sports gambling in Texas if the federal ban is overturned.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the New Jersey case -- dubbed Christie v. NCAA -- on Dec. 4, and a decision is expected in the spring. If the court finds the federal law to be unconstitutional, each state might be able to decide for itself whether to legalize and regulate sports gambling within its borders, although a narrower ruling also is possible.
Texas has strict anti-gambling laws that limit legal gambling mainly to the state lottery, some pari-mutuel wagering on horse and dog races and so-called "social" gambling, such as charity bingo. A small number of casinos operate on Native American lands in Texas, although the state has periodically mounted legal challenges to some of those facilities.
Still, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has joined attorneys general and some governors from 20 other states in signing onto a Supreme Court brief supporting New Jersey in its fight to overturn the federal law prohibiting sports betting in most places. Paxton appears to have done so based solely on the issue of states' rights, however, and not because of a desire to see sports gambling flourish in Texas.
Paxton, a Republican who also is running for re-election next year, has previously taken a hard line against even the hint of sports wagering in the state, issuing an opinion in 2016 that commercial fantasy sports leagues constitute chance-based gambling -- instead of games of skill -- and thus are illegal under Texas law.
Participants in commercial fantasy sports leagues pay entry fees, choose teams from rosters of athletes and then compete to win prize money based upon the statistical performances of their players, such as yards gained and touchdowns scored in football.
Through a spokesperson, Paxton declined to comment on his support for New Jersey in the larger sports-gambling case, although in October he called the federal law unconstitutional and said that "it tramples on state sovereignty."
He made the comments to members of the American Sports Betting Coalition, an offshoot of the American Gaming Association formed to muster political momentum to convince Congress to repeal the ban, and his quotes are included in advocacy material on its website.
"By ending (the federal ban), states can rightfully decide whether they want regulated sports betting or not," Paxton said then.
The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act prohibits states from enacting new laws to regulate sports gambling -- which basically bars any from legalizing it if they hadn't already done so before the act was approved in 1992. Nevada is the only state with full-fledged sports gambling because it had previously been established there, although Delaware, Montana and Oregon can have sports gambling in limited forms.
Casey M. Clark, an American Gaming Association spokesman, said his organization is happy to have allies in its bid to kill the law.
"We aren't pushing states to pursue (sports) gaming," said Clark, whose organization has also weighed in to support New Jersey in its Supreme Court fight. "We just want them to have the opportunity. Our goal is to remove the failed federal ban on sports betting and allow states and tribal sovereign nations to decide what is right for them."
The American Sports Betting Coalition contends that lifting the federal ban and allowing states to legalize gambling on sporting events would be a financial boon, with a potential nationwide economic impact of up to $26.6 billion annually that would generate combined new tax revenue of up to $5.3 billion a year for federal, state and local governments.
Such a move also would pull a large but illegal sports betting market out of the shadows and allow it to be regulated and monitored, the group says. Because of the current ban in most states, the gaming association estimates that U.S. gamblers place almost $150 billion annually in illegal wagers on sporting events.
The federal prohibition "has perpetuated a massive (illegal) market," Clark said. "It hasn't done what it was purported to do, which is stop sports betting."
Still, a serious push in Texas to make it legal to wager on sporting events -- provided the Supreme Court overturns the federal ban and renders it possible -- might be about as likely as drawing a straight flush.
Texas lawmakers have shown little appetite for expanding the various forms of gambling that they already can control. For instance, a number of proposals in this year's legislative session to allow more casinos in Texas didn't gain traction, nor did a measure that would have legalized the operation of commercial fantasy sports leagues.
"I think a pretty good chunk of the (Texas) Senate and the House would be against" legalized betting on sporting events, said JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America-We the People, a tea party-aligned organization that has the ear of conservative Texas lawmakers. "It would face an uphill battle."
Fleming said she personally opposes gambling and considers legalizing it to be bad public policy, saying, among other things, that it fuels increased government spending on regulation and social services.
Bob Sechler writes for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: bsechler(at)statesman.com.
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