Tennessee Casino Effort Tabled to 2022, But Not Necessarily Delayed

Posted on April 5, 2021 - Last Updated on April 27, 2021

Tennessee will wait until next year to consider a constitutional amendment to legalize casinos in the state. But, in this case, waiting isn’t an actual delay.

Rep. Jason Powell introduced HJR 93 with the hope of restarting the discussion about bringing resort casinos to the Volunteer State.

Powell brought up the issue in the House Departments and Agencies Subcommittee last week, agreeing to table the matter until next year.

However, this isn’t necessarily a setback. With this being the first year of a two-year session, passing the bill in 2022 is the same as passing it in 2021. Powell spoke with PlayTenn about the effort.

Why now for Tennessee casino legalization?

Powell introduced the legislation twice before, the last time in 2017.

With the successful launch of online sports betting in Tennessee, Powell thought the timing might be right to give casinos another look.

“I was motivated to reintroduce the legislature this year because we saw the success of sports gaming in the state. I just continue to see the states around us that do have casino gaming. Tennessee is really missing the boat on casino gaming done in a highly regulated, sophisticated manner.”

Casinos surround Tennessee

Even in the conservative south, casino gaming has become commonplace.

Neighboring Mississippi, Missouri and Arkansas all have commercial casinos, while North Carolina has tribal casinos. Virginia, too, will soon have a casino.

Many Memphis residents go to Tunica in Mississippi for some gambling fun, while eastern Tennesseans go to the tribal casinos in North Carolina.

Powell wants the locations of the casinos strategically chosen. He sees one near Nashville, one near Memphis, and another in East Tennessee.

From his district of Nashville, Powell knows people are going into Kentucky to play the slot-machine like historical horse racing games at Kentucky racetracks.

“In Nashville, we are uniquely poised with the amount of tourists we see and the success built around our music industry,” Powell said. “I can tell you right now in Nashville, there is a huge billboard trying to draw people to Kentucky Downs, where they have historical horse racing.”

No momentum built in 2021

While there was no time lost for the casino effort this year, it was not the successful reintroduction Powell envisioned.

He didn’t expect the bill to pass this year, but he did hope to get a real hearing with industry testimony. That didn’t happen.

If it did pass this year, it almost certainly would have been vetoed by Gov. Bill Lee. That will stand in the way of next year’s effort as well. However, it doesn’t deter Powell.

“The governor is up for reelection next year,” Powell said. “I think he’ll run again, but who knows. Life tells us that you can’t be certain who will be in office when things occur. I don’t make my decisions based on the governor’s opinion.”

No sportsbooks at casinos

Since Tennessee already has sports betting, it would seem natural that the addition of casinos would mean retail sportsbooks in the state.

That may eventually be the case, but it would require additional legislation, according to Powell. Tennessee’s sports betting law allowed for online sports betting through the lottery.

If the casino bill does pass, casinos would not automatically have sportsbooks. But that could be worked out while the casinos are being built.

“If we get this passed, I’m sure the casinos would be clamoring to expand sports gaming into their facilities,” Powell said. “But we’d probably need to pass another bill to put sportsbooks into casinos.”

Future of Tennessee casino effort

Passing a constitutional amendment in Tennessee is a multi-year process.

By the end of next year, the Tennessee legislature needs to pass the bill by a simple majority.

In the next two-year session beginning in 2023, the legislature must pass the bill again by a two-thirds vote. Then it needs approval from the governor.

So the earliest casino gaming could make an election ballot is 2024. Then it needs approval from voters.

According to Powell,

“Tennessee traditionally is more of a conservative state. I think that there are some degrees of this being an uphill battle. But we have seen the success of sports gaming in the state, and I think that is a good entry into taking the next step and looking further into casino gaming.”

Photo by Associated Press
Matthew Kredell Avatar
Written by
Matthew Kredell

Matthew has covered efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling since 2007. His reporting on the legalization of sports betting began in 2010 with an article for Playboy Magazine on how the NFL was pushing US money overseas by fighting the expansion of regulated sports betting. A USC journalism alum, Matt started his career as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Daily News and has written on a variety of topics for Playboy, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

View all posts by Matthew Kredell