With new legislation introduced in Texas, it is an appropriate time to examine whether the Texas State Legislature is trying to do something for Indian Gaming or to Indian Gaming. The only certainty is that something is likely to happen! And, like the Texas Two Step, the legislative casino dance changes at the whim of the “leader” – which in this case is the Texas Legislature.
The overriding question is: What is happening here, and why?
For starters, it is important to understand two things: (1) the state’s three federally recognized Indian tribes do not share equal legal status and (2) the Legislature ostensibly has proposed to level the playing field so that all three enjoy an equal gaming opportunity. The three tribes are (1) the Texas Band of Kickapoo Indians in Eagle Pass, which is 143 miles southwest of San Antonio on the Rio Grande River and far from the Gulf Coast, (2) the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribe – also known as the Texas Tigua Tribe, located near El Paso and far from the Gulf Coast, and (3) the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Livingston, 74 miles north of Houston and 76 miles northwest of Beaumont, and clearly much closer to the Gulf Coast and the hundreds of thousands of tourists annually traveling to the Gulf. Each of these tribes was recognized by a special Act of Congress.
Kickapoo was recognized by Congress through the Act of January 8, 1983, a federal law which imposed no restrictions on the Tribe’s right to conduct gaming. The Alabama-Coushatta and Texas Tigua Tribes were recognized through the Act of August 18, 1987, which restricted any tribal gaming to gaming activities that are lawful under Texas state law. The distinction between Kickapoo gaming opportunity and that available to the Alabama-Coushatta and Tigua becomes important under both the Texas state laws and, in turn, the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.
It should be noted that the Alabama-Coushatta opened a casino in 2001 on its Livingston reservation that produced monthly revenues of an estimated $1 million for nine months. A federal court shut it down, and the facility has never reopened. Similarly, the Tigua Tribe operated a casino for a while, but it too was closed by court order. Since then, the Tigua gaming operation has been limited to a “sweepstakes” that the Tribe claims is legal under state law. In the meantime, the Kickapoo Tribe has been operating a Class II gaming facility on its reservation, but the State has refused to negotiate a Class III gaming compact.
The two “have not” tribes are the subject of state legislation that would remedy the situation. This would be accomplished by a bill introduced on March 12 by state representatives for districts in Houston and El Paso purporting to put all three Texas tribes on an equal footing. Indeed, the legislation has been touted in the press as “recognizing the gaming rights of all tribes in Texas.” It would do this by removing the restrictions of the 1987 federal law by extending the same rights to the two tribes recognized by that legislation to the level of rights enjoyed by the Kickapoo under the 1983 federal law. The bill sponsors’ stated intent is to amend the Texas Constitution to allow the Alabama-Coushatta and Tigua to engage in gaming on their tribal lands, and thus putting them on the same footing as the Kickapoo.
Within 24 hours of the introduction of the March 12 legislation, State Representative Joe Deshotel of Beaumont proposed to severely mitigate the pro-tribal benefits from the day-old legislation. The Beaumont politician introduced legislation proposing to authorize nine non-tribal “Las Vegas style” casinos to be located in counties on the Texas Gulf Coast. (As the reader will recognize, the sponsor’s hometown just happens to be in one of the counties that just happens to be on the Gulf Coast.)
The ostensible purpose of the new bill is far from the costs incurred by property owners in those designated counties during violent storms, such as hurricanes. However, its actual effect would be devastating to an Alabama-Coushatta gaming facility located far from the tourism mecca of the Gulf Coast. It is true that the Tigua and Kickapoo would benefit, but they almost certainly would lose destination casino traffic in light of the competing opportunity on the Gulf Coast.
The March 12 legislation looks great on paper. However, it looks much less so in light of the March 13 legislation. Moreover, current activity in the Legislature is even more troubling for tribal gaming. What initially seemed to be a fairly simple resolution is more complicated by recent statements by Texas legislators from Laredo, Houston, and Eagle Pass, as well as statements from anti-gaming lobbyists claiming a “clear majority” of lawmakers opposed to any expansion of gaming “even when times are hard.”