This past week’s decision by the Supreme Court not to hear an appeal from the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas about offering electronic bingo at its Naskila Gaming facility is disappointing, but not surprising.
It’s a convoluted situation, but one that basically boils down to a conflict between two federal laws, one of which says the tribe can operate a gaming facility and another one that says it can’t.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear our case is disappointing and underscores our position that the equal treatment of Texas tribes and the preservation of hundreds of jobs that depend on our electronic bingo operation at Naskila requires legislative action consistent with numerous court decisions,” said tribal chairwoman Cecilia Flores.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has consistently sided with state leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who are all opposed to the tribe’s gaming efforts.
“I strongly encourage Congress to reject this attempt to restrict Texas’ power to regulate activities within its borders,” Abbott said in a letter Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy before House Resolution 759 was approved.
That’s why U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Woodville) filed HR 759, which protects the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe’s right, under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, to offer electronic bingo at its Naskila Gaming facility on their reservation. The legislation provides the same protections for the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in El Paso.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is the federal law that regulates Indian gaming throughout the United States.
In his initial ruling, U.S. District Judge Keith F. Giblin said although the National Indian Gaming Commission is authorized to enforce the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, that law is superseded by the Restoration Act of 1987 that requires Texas tribes to obey state gambling laws and regulations.
“Given the complex history of this matter and its importance to the tribe, the undersigned must take the time to express the court’s understanding and sympathy for the tribe’s position,” Giblin wrote in the decision. “The tribe is bearing the brunt of a conflicting statutory scheme, the result of which is arguably undesirable to its interests and, many would say, unjust.”
Naskila Gaming is an alcohol-free entertainment facility that has operated since June 2016 and averages about a million visitors per year. The facility and the Tribe have emerged as the third largest employer in Polk and Tyler counties, providing 561 jobs and injecting $139 million into the region’s economy, according to a study conducted by Texas Perspectives. And these aren’t just any old jobs; these are well-paying jobs with excellent retirement and health care benefits that both tribal and non-tribal workers say are being offered to them for the first times in their lives.
As the region’s industries have been sold off or shuttered over the last generation, most East Texans have been clamoring for well-paying jobs like these.
In his letter to the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Cornyn asked his fellow senators to postpone hearings on HR 759 because Abbott, Patrick and Paxton ‘‘have concerns with this legislation because current federal law prohibits gambling on tribal lands unless authorized by the State of Texas ... Under Texas law, most forms of gambling are prohibited.”
Who is he kidding?
While most forms of gambling may be ‘‘prohibited,’’ the reality is much different. Texas currently offers charitable bingo, pari-mutuel horse and dog racing (including off-track betting), statewide lottery, charitable raffles, casino cruises and “private” poker card rooms. And the state even has scratch-off tickets bearing the logo of an out-of-state casino owned by Tilman Fertitta and his family, who happen to make generous campaign contributions to Texas’ Republican leaders.
Flores said the Tribe isn’t going to give up its fight. Naskila Gaming helps provide for the housing, health care, education and other needs of its members. That’s the economic self-sufficiency for which we all yearn.
Does authorizing electronic bingo on two reservations, one in East Texas and another in West Texas, really pose that great a threat to Texas’ way of life?
We have used this space in the past to advocate the Tribe pursue a more aggressive course of action. In 2003, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims recommended Congress compensate the Tribe $270.6 million for lost oil, gas and timber revenue and the loss of 5.5 million acres of ancestral lands. To help put that into perspective, those 5.5 million acres for a sovereign Indian nation cover an area roughly the size of New Jersey. Before its current facility opened, the Tribe offered to forego those claims in exchange for the opportunity to operate a Class II casino, not the Class III Las Vegas-style casino it previously operated.
Flores said the Tribe will continue to pursue legislative and judicial options. We believe the Tribe should also sue for the $270.6 million the U.S. Court of Federal Claims says it is owed — plus interest.
The livelihood of East Texas families is at stake, after all.