AUSTIN — House Speaker Dade Phelan is open to bringing resort-style casinos to Texas.
In a brief interview with reporters Thursday, the Beaumont Republican said he believes voters would approve the constitutional amendment needed to expand gambling in the state.
“What I don’t want to see is to walk into every convenience store and see 15 slot machines,” Phelan said. “I want to see destination-style casinos that are high quality and that create jobs and that improve the lifestyle of those communities.”
He described resorts equipped with golf courses, hotels and concert venues that are “major economic providers.”
Attempts to expand gambling in Texas have gone nowhere in past sessions, but the industry is gearing up for yet another strong push to bring gaming of some kind to one of the last major markets without it.
Phelan’s words of support signal the issue may be gaining ground, though other state leaders are more lukewarm.
Once a firm opponent, Gov. Greg Abbott last fall said he would consider expanded casino gambling with the right proposal. A spokesperson told The Houston Chronicle that Abbott doesn’t want slot machines on every corner, but “if there is a way to create a very professional entertainment option for Texans, Gov. Abbott would take a look at it.”
In December, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the state Senate, told Austin-based KXAN he doesn’t “see any movement on it.”
Last session, representatives for Las Vegas Sands said the Dallas-Fort Worth area would be the top target location for a casino resort if gambling was legalized because of its strong convention and tourism industry and proximity to airports.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently told The Dallas Morning News that his goal, in partnership with the Las Vegas Sands, is to build a new arena in the middle of a resort and casino. “That’s the mission,” he said in December.
The Sands team, one of several promoting expanding gambling this session, has already brought on 35 lobbyists this year with a potential price tag of up to $2.7 million, according to records filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. At least four are former lawmakers, former Sens. Leticia van de Putte and Buster Brown and former Reps. Jim Keffer and Mike Toomey.
Abbott’s former policy guru, John Colyandro, and Gavin Massingill, who was chief of staff to former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, are also on board.
A push for sports betting is also under way, with former Gov. Rick Perry as its spokesman.
Phelan, who lives a “stone’s throw” away from casino gambling in Louisiana, said the expansion is not about revenue, which he described as not a lot in the grand scheme of the state budget.
“This is about what the voters want,” he said. “I think that the average voter would approve that in this day and age, and that has changed over the last 20 years.”
In order to expand any form of gambling, two-thirds of members in the House and Senate must sign off, and then the proposal must go before Texas voters in a constitutional amendment election. Lawmakers have until early March to file bills.
“If a member is personally opposed to it,” Phelan said, “they could obviously allow their constituents to decide ultimately whether or not that’s the right thing.”
Austin bureau reporter Lauren McGaughy contributed to this report.