American Indian tribe fights Texas to keep bingo center open

Historically averse to anything resembling casino-style gambling, Texas officials are now going after a thriving electronic bingo center run by an American Indian tribe nearly a year after the machines began filling a rustic building on historic land north of Houston.

The Alabama-Coushatta tribe runs the Naskila Gaming entertainment center, named for their word for dogwood trees that populate the Piney Woods of East Texas. The operation has so far created more than 400 jobs — including about 200 for the tribe's 1,200 members — and added $5 million to the local economy, said Carlos Bullock, a former tribal council chairman.

"We are in the fight for our future," Bullock said. "This is something, a revenue stream, that can help the tribe immensely."

But state attorneys say the operation is illegal. The state argues the presence of electronic bingo machines violates an injunction from 15 years ago that closed a full-scale casino shortly after the tribe opened it on the same site. The center — on land the tribe received through Texas hero Sam Houston — is about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northeast of Houston.

The state wants the tribe held in contempt and the 2002 injunction enforced. A federal court hearing is set for Thursday in Beaumont.

"The machines operated at Naskila are not a permissible form of 'bingo' and as a result, still cannot be operated without state oversight," Anne Marie Mackin, an assistant Texas attorney general, said in a court filing.

Attorneys for the tribe argue the operation is legal under the U.S. Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which was approved by Congress in 1988 and gives regulation authority of gaming on Native American lands to the three-member National Indian Gaming Commission. The 365 electronic bingo machines, known as Class 2 gambling, weren't covered in the 2002 injunction that halted slot machines, blackjack and poker games, considered Class 3 gambling, they contend.

"When we closed in 2002, we lost 300 jobs," Bullock said. "That was a difficult time for the tribe and tribal members, people who had begun relying on that income. That's what makes it so important we do everything legally and correctly because we can't afford to lose those jobs again."

However, the Alabama-Coushatta and another Texas tribe, the El Paso-based Tiguas, were federally recognized through the Restoration Act passed by Congress a year earlier in 1987, and agreed to a prohibition on gambling.

"A fluke of timing," Bullock said.

Since then, horse and dog track betting and a state lottery all became legal in Texas.

"The state can change its mind, but we're held by this resolution," he said.

The Coushatta and Alabama, then separate tribes, refused to support Mexico as Texans sought independence in the 1830s, and the victorious Houston rewarded them by working to secure property about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northeast of what's now his namesake city.

The only other federally recognized tribe in Texas, the Kickapoo, won its recognition in 1983 but had no provision regarding gambling. They now operate the only legal gambling center in the state in remote Eagle Pass, about 130 miles (209 kilometers) southwest of San Antonio along Texas-Mexico border.

The Texas Constitution bars most forms of gambling and legislative efforts to put the question directly before Texas voters long have failed.

"A lot of the thinking of the right in Texas originates in the more conservative religious denominations, and that is certainly true of the Texas Tea Party, for whom social, cultural, moral issues are primary," said Robert Biles, a political science professor at Sam Houston State University

A study in 2013 for the Texas Association of Business showed Texans already were spending $3 billion each year gambling elsewhere, like adjacent states which all have casinos.

And while this latest effort to thwart the Alabama-Coushatta in the courts is driven by Ken Paxton, a Republican attorney general allied to the Tea Party, it's a nonpartisan issue. American Indian gambling was contested back in the 1990s during the term of Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat.

The Louisiana Gaming Control Board has noted Houston-area residents, 150 miles (241 kilometers) away, accounted for the most customers to Lake Charles, Louisiana, casinos which "would be hurt by legalized gambling in Texas."

A hint of what could happen has surfaced in Oklahoma, where American Indian-run casinos draw Texas residents from the Dallas-Fort Worth area about an hour away on Interstate 35. They've siphoned business from Shreveport and Bossier City, three hours to the east in Louisiana.

"Obviously if another option that's closer geographically to folks, they will investigate it," Wayne Duty, executive director of the Louisiana Casino Association, said. "What we saw in northwest Louisiana when the Native American (Oklahoma) casinos came online, we lost 17 percent of our gross revenue. And frankly, we never recovered that."