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Billionaires Want to Bring Vegas to Deeply Resistant Texas

(Bloomberg) -- Tilman Fertitta has long wanted to bring grand resort-style casinos to Texas. But despite years of effort, including hiring lobbyists and donating to politicians, the Houston billionaire and other like-minded business titans have run into more powerful forces in the state: morality and politics.

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Now, Fertitta – who owns Golden Nugget casinos and has an estimated net worth of $11 billion – is seeing signs of progress. One reason: He’s got more company from casino backers who also want to overturn a gambling ban that’s existed for 120 years.

The heirs of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. empire, led by Miriam Adelson, are ramping up political donations and recruiting their own lobbyists. Deepening their foray into the state, Adelson’s family bought control of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team last year from Mark Cuban, who’s also been touting casino-based resorts as tourist destinations that will draw more dollars to Texas.

Texans, meanwhile, are increasingly flocking to casinos in neighboring states. Fertitta has a resort in Lake Charles, Louisiana, while the Choctaw Nation owns more than a half-dozen casinos and resorts in Oklahoma. Located less than two hours from downtown Dallas or Fort Worth, the Choctaw casinos advertise heavily on highway billboards and at the cities’ shared airport — not just for the opportunity to wager but also for concerts featuring acts such as Aerosmith and Reba McEntire.

Perhaps, said Fertitta, whose holdings also include Landry’s Seafood and the Houston Rockets, the time has come for Texas to join dozens of other states in allowing Las Vegas-style casino resorts.

“Let’s do something to bring tourism and the business traveler and conventions to Texas — and these need to be billion-dollar properties that do that,” he said in an interview. “We need to do it right and build the casinos, and not have a bunch of slot machines at every single little grocery store.”

The political challenge is still immense. Opposition ranges from Christian conservatives to lawmakers worried about rising crime and gambling addiction.

“For some, it is a strong moral issue,” said Rob Kohler, a lobbyist for the Christian Life Commission, the public policy arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “It is also about protection of the poor, and an economic issue. There are a large number of Texans who are not, quote, ‘anti-gambling’ but don’t want it next door and in our state.”

Court Ruling

In 2018, the US Supreme Court freed states to allow betting on individual sports events, softening the stigma that had long been associated with gambling. Since then, sports betting has been legalized in more than 30 states and Washington, D.C.

As for casinos, Texas has three that are operated by Indian tribes. But they’re limited to bingo-type slot machines and non-banked card games, meaning players compete against each other, not the house. California and Florida, by contrast, have multibillion-dollar tribal casino industries.

So does New York, which also has privately-owned casinos and is soliciting bids for three more around New York City. While any decision is a long way off, that’s sparked a frenzy involving roughly a dozen potential applicants, including Las Vegas Sands. Also interested are Point72 founder and New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, as well as Related Cos., Wynn Resorts Ltd., Bally’s Corp. and Hard Rock International Inc.

In Illinois, state gambling revenue rose to a record last year and is expected to keep increasing as video gaming and sports wagering expand and bigger casinos open. Bally’s is running a temporary casino in Chicago and working on plans to build the city’s first casino.

In Texas, advocates argue Las Vegas-style resorts would spur job growth and bring in more tourist dollars to restaurants, stores and hotels. Cuban, who made a fortune in tech before buying the Mavericks, has been talking up the potential for real estate developments anchored by a casino and an arena.

“Look at the size, scope and economics of resort destinations with and without a casino,” Cuban said in an email. “Even though the casino isn’t a huge part of the economics, it supports scale and depth.”

The Adelsons’ investment in the Mavericks is likely to provide a boost the next time lawmakers consider casino legalization, said Carol Alvarado, a Democratic state senator who introduced a casino bill last year.

“Having their presence here in Dallas certainly helps the conversation,” Alvarado said. “It’s not a slam dunk. It doesn’t mean it’s going to automatically happen, but it definitely will help to elevate the conversation and maybe get people to think twice about it.”

Texans spend about $5 billion a year on gambling in adjacent states and in Las Vegas, according to Clyde Barrow, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. George Zodrow, a consultant, told Texas lawmakers that seven proposed casino projects would create 48,000 jobs and boost the state economy by as much as $7.7 billion.

Lobbying Effort

In 2023, Adelson gave more than $2 million to Texas campaigns. Las Vegas Sands registered 104 lobbyists with the state that year, according to data compiled by the Texas Ethics Commission. That’s an increase from the 76 in 2021, the first time Las Vegas Sands got involved at the state legislature level. She also donated $2.3 million to a political action committee called Texas Sands PAC.

Since January 2018, Fertitta has given about $3.1 million in cash and in-kind gifts to Texas politicians and political action committees.

There are at least some early signs of a possible shift in the political tides. About 75% of Texans support legislation to bring casino-style resorts to Texas, according to a January 2023 poll by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

A Republican-backed bill proposing a constitutional amendment authorizing casino gambling at destination resorts made it out of a house committee last year – a first for Texas. Governor Greg Abbott, who got $1 million in campaign contributions from Adelson in 2022, has also signaled openness on casinos.

Additional progress won’t be easy, however. Any amendment would need to be approved by both houses of the state legislature before going on a ballot in a statewide referendum. And the Texas legislature, which only meets every other year, isn’t scheduled for a regular session until 2025.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who exerts significant control over the state senate, hasn’t even brought a casino bill to be heard on the floor.

“Patrick would have to see a stronger argument about the economic benefits for Texas,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

That leaves Fertitta with a sense of both progress and limitation.

“Every year it gets a little easier,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that it gets done.”

--With assistance from Laura Nahmias, Christopher Palmeri and Shruti Date Singh.

(Updates with Las Vegas Sands’ interest in New York in 11th paragraph, Illinois gambling revenue in 12th paragraph)

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