Saturday, August 29, 2009

Changes to Texas gaming laws won’t come easy

By S.E. Ruckman, Today correspondent

Story Published: Aug 7, 2009

EL PASO, Texas – Any hopes that Indian tribes in Texas had to resurrect gaming in their state were laid to rest again after legislators voted down efforts to further a related bill in May.

Meanwhile, another tribe, the Fort Sill Apache of Oklahoma, are forging plans for its debated gaming site in New Mexico.

The efforts represent tribes tackling obstacles to sovereignty regarding gaming, officials for both tribes said.

“We’ve been unsuccessful, but we’ve been close,” said Tom Diamond, tribal counsel for the 1,400-member Tiguas.

On the Tigua end, the tribe has backed several bills that would help them receive state casino licenses. Their political involvement was spurred by the closing of its Speaking Rock Casino in 2002, by now Texas Sen. John Cornyn, once the Lone Star State’s attorney general.

Two other recognized tribes in Texas are the Alabama Coushatta and the Kickapoos of Texas. The Kickapoo currently have poker and bingo but also back the pro-Indian gaming moves in Texas. Opponents to Texas gaming said allowing tribal gaming will increase violent crime, raise bankruptcies and spawn gaming addictions.

The window on changing current restrictive gaming laws in Texas faces further resistance because Texas lawmakers meet every two years for a four-month session. That time frame hampers and helps the Tiguas develop a plan that would allow the tribe to reopen its casino, officials said.

“Texans don’t want to recognize that Indians have any rights at all,” Diamond said. “Their sovereignty policy amounts to annihilation.”

A reopened Speaking Rock Casino would mean an estimated $60 million annually for the small tribe that now relies mostly on federal grants to stay alive. The tribe has been forced to cut back on services due to the economic downturn.

“Can you imagine what a small tribe can do with that kind of money,” Diamond said.

Other developments have held the tribe back since the tribe paid former lobbyist Jack Abramoff $4.2 million to secure help in reopening the casino after siding with the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana to back its closing.

Also, a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling said Texas laws against casino gambling stands for all Texas tribes. A more recent setback for gaming came when Texas was able to leverage stimulus funds that allowed them to dismiss tribal gaming as an answer to a revenue shortfall. Texas gaming proponents estimate $4.5 billion a year could come from casino gaming.

Meanwhile, the Fort Sill Apaches are
visualizing their Apache Homelands Casino near Deming, N.M. as there to stay, said tribal chairman, Jeff Houser. The 600-member tribe operates one casino in Lawton, Okla. less than one mile from the Comanche Nation facility. Houser said the 30-acre site could be a boon to an area that has little industry.

“It’s a desire (for the tribe) to return to our homelands.”

The tribe raised the ire of New Mexico officials when it opened a second casino outside its current tribal jurisdiction in southwest Oklahoma. The issue here is one of successfully realizing a post-1988 trust land acquisition, Houser said.

Historical shuffling also plays a part in this debate as the tribe says it’s the successor to the Chiricahua Apaches which claimed a homeland of 16 million acres on land located in New Mexico and Arizona. The tribe is reclaiming its land base and asserting its sovereignty, tribal officials said.

After opening the Apache Homelands casino, the tribe pulled down gaming machines at the site it had bought from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma. State officials said the casino is illegal because the tribe didn’t have a Class III gaming compact with them.

But Houser says plans are moving forward and the tribe runs a steady paper bingo and pull tabs operation on its purchased property. Class II gaming is allowed by federal statute without state compacts, according to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

Houser and other casino officials said the plan is to maintain an operative presence in New Mexico until it secures a meeting with state officials.

A Freedom of Information Act request was submitted to the National Indian Gaming Commission on the Tigua and Fort Sill Apache decisions and is pending.
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