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The gaming empire Las Vegas Sands is launching a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz to build support for its campaign to bring casinos to Texas.
The company will begin airing TV and radio ads Thursday in the state's biggest markets, according to an announcement first shared with The Texas Tribune. The news of the ads came the same day that a Texas House committee reviewed proposals to expand gambling in the state, including one being backed by Las Vegas Sands.
The ads tell Texans that "billions of tourism and gambling dollars" leave the state every year for neighboring states that allow more gaming.
"This November, the Legislature can allow Texans to vote to build four world-class destination resorts and casinos, bringing those dollars back to Texas," a narrator says in one of the half-minute TV spots. "Let’s boost our economy, create tens of thousands of jobs and help fund vital services like schools and public safety."
Las Vegas Sands is funding the ads under the banner of its new Texas Destination Resort Alliance, which has unveiled a website and social media accounts to coincide with the ad campaign.
The company is backing legislation that would let Texans vote on whether to create special casino licenses for four "destination resorts" in the state's four largest metropolitan areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. The ads will air in those markets as well as some others.
Las Vegas Sands has spent millions of dollars to hire dozens of lobbyists this session, hoping to persuade a Legislature that has been reluctant to expand gambling options in the past.
The Sands push has made little progress in the Legislature so far. The Senate version has been referred to a committee but has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.
The House State Affairs Committee heard testimony Wednesday on the Sands-supported legislation, House Joint Resolution 133 by Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, as well as on a proposal that would specifically allow sports gambling in the state. That legislation is being pushed by the Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of professional Texas sports teams, betting platforms and racetracks.
Both bills were left pending.
Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, laid out HJR 133 on behalf of Kuempel, who could not attend the hearing, emphasizing that the proposal "simply allows the people of the state of Texas to make the decision" on casinos. Geren touted the job creation that the destination resorts would generate, lamented the tourism dollars that are flowing to neighboring states and proactively addressed one criticism — that casinos would bring "blight and negative social impact."
"To that I say: We already have negative social impact," Geren said. "Go no further than our borders than those with an addiction can drive less than 20 minutes and then return home to our state with no resources in place for them. Go no further than your smartphone, where illegal bets are bing placed on illegal bookie apps every day."
Geren promised that he was pitching a "highly, highly regulated option, an option for an extremely limited gaming footprint, an option which includes real resources to combat any negative effects."
The committee also heard from Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands' senior vice president of government relations, who brought up concerns that had been apparently raised by a committee member, GOP Rep. Matt Shaheen of Plano. Abboud said Las Vegas Sands would "never claim to be an economic panacea" and sees itself as another industry that wants to come to Texas — only the "threshold is much higher" due to voter approval.
Shaheen was easily the most skeptical member of the committee, at one point saying the Sands-supported proposal seems "very favorable" toward Las Vegas hospitality operators and suggesting that Texas companies could be boxed out. Abboud disagreed and said nothing in the legislation prohibits a partnership with a Texas company, noting that Las Vegas Sands has been "working very closely with Tilman Fertitta," the Houston billionaire and CEO of Landry's, which operates casinos, hotels and restaurants.
The committee otherwise heard opposition from representatives of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and the Kickapoo Tribe, which is allowed to operate a casino in Eagle Pass as one of Texas' three federally recognized tribes.
The House speaker, Dade Phelan, has been more open to expanding gambling than has Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate and thrown cold water on the idea. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he wants to hear from lawmakers where their constituents are at on the issue.
Adelson's widow, Miriam Adelson, made a trip to Austin last month and met separately with Abbott and Patrick. An Abbott spokesperson characterized the meeting as one between friends that had little, if anything, to do with legislative business.
The Sands-backed House and Senate proposals have picked up some support since they were filed in early March. The House legislation has since attracted three joint authors: Geren and Reps. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, and Sam Harless, R-Houston.
The Senate proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 49 by Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, has gotten two coauthors since it was filed: Democratic Sens. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen and Beverly Powell of Burleson.
Las Vegas Sands appears undeterred by the slow progress. At one point in the hearing Wednesday, Abboud lightheartedly acknowledged the "small number of lobbyists" that the company has unleashed on Austin, saying more seriously that it hired the army "because we wanted to be transparent" and have as many people as possible available to answer lawmakers' questions about a major issue.
"We're here for the long haul," Abboud said. "We're very committed to Texas, whether it is this session or future sessions."