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Texas tribes push to reopen casinos

AUSTIN, Texas – Two American Indian tribes asked Texas lawmakers March 30 to let them reopen casinos they say helped them pay for education, health care and other essential services.

Leaders of the Tigua tribe of El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta of Livingston testified before a House subcommittee on the first casino gambling bill to get a public hearing this session. Proposals to allow Las Vegas-style resort casinos elsewhere in Texas and slot machines at race tracks are also pending.

“The Tiguas used their profits wisely,” said Democratic Rep. Norma Chavez of El Paso, explaining that the tribe’s casino revenues of $50 to $60 million per year paid for college scholarships, health care, a library and a recreation center.

Unemployment declined dramatically in that period because the casino employed 800 people, she said.

Tigua Lt. Gov. Carlos Hisa said since the casino closed, some services for tribal members have been terminated. Hisa, Chavez and other Tigua leaders later went before a separate House committee on border issues and sought support for a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the Tiguas to run a casino.

Women members of the tribe also testified and met privately with lawmakers to assure them they don’t feel disenfranchised even though women are not allowed to vote in tribal elections. Patricia Riggs, director of economic development for the Tiguas, said she holds a master’s degree and an important role in tribal administration and that women have many rights and privileges under tribal rules and traditions.

“We anticipate that change will take place when the time is right and women will vote. The tribe is fully aware it operates within a modern society.”

The Speaking Rock Casino was open for nine years beginning in 1993 and was an economic boost to the El Paso area, Chavez said. Now, she said, El Paso-area residents continue to gamble just across the state line.

“So revenue that could stay in Texas is now going to New Mexico.”

One of her pieces of legislation would provide a defense to prosecution for gaming at Texas tribal casinos run by the Tiguas and the Alabama-Coushatta. That same proposal barely failed in the House in 2007 on a rare tie vote. The state went to court and succeeded in shutting down the tribes’ casinos in 2002.

Only the Kickapoo tribe of Eagle Pass, governed by a different federal law known as the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, runs a casino in Texas. The Tiguas and Alabama-Coushatta tribes fall under the more restrictive Restoration Act.

Alabama-Coushatta tribal council chairman Carlos Bullock testified that his tribe’s East Texas casino was open only nine months, but that the tribe saw benefits right away and had hoped to achieve what the Tiguas did.

“These are two tribes that have had long histories with the state of Texas. We want to continue to be good neighbors,” Bullock told the House Criminal Jurisprudence subcommittee.

The tribes say they should be allowed to offer gaming because Texas voters approved a state lottery in 1991.

The Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission testified against Chavez’s proposals, saying casino gaming is a predatory business that relies on addiction for profit. The commission suggested passage of the defense to prosecution bill could lead to a costly legal challenge to the state.

“It attempts to do something that is unconstitutional,” said Stephen Reeves, public policy legislative counsel for the Christian Life Commission.

The group contends the bill is written so broadly that any tribe with historic ties to the state – not just the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta – could come in and establish casinos in Texas.

While the commission doesn’t deny that casinos helped the tribes economically, Reeves said it doesn’t want to see gaming expand in the state.

Chavez responded that her defense to prosecution bill would apply only to the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta tribes and would give them parity with the Kickapoo. She called it “a gambling limitation bill.”

The proposal does not address state taxation or revenue-sharing for the casinos.

In the border issues committee, Republican Rep. Dan Flynn of Van asked pointed questions of Tigua leaders and wondered what power the state has in the Indian gaming matter.

Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, who once chaired a committee that oversaw numerous gambling bills, said American Indian tribes simply want to be left alone to conduct their business.

“What are we afraid of?” Flores said. “Let the voters of the state of Texas decide if they want this or not.”

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