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Tigua

State sues Alabama-Coushatta tribe over casino

Here we go again.

A new legal salvo was fired this week in the state’s long-running battle against Indian gambling with a filing in federal court that seeks to close the gaming hall on the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation.

A motion for contempt and injunctive relief was filed Monday by Attorney General Ken Paxton, claiming that the Naskila Entertainment Center, which has offered electronic bingo since reopening in May, violates an existing court injunction.

It asks that the small East Texas tribe be ordered to halt the gaming operation, remove all gaming equipment and pay a civil penalty of $10,000 a day from June 2 until all gaming ceases.

On Tuesday, the log cabin-style hall on the 10,000-acre reservation in the Piney Woods east of Livingston was still open to the gaming public.

“We definitely think we’re in the right. The federal government and the National Indian Gaming Commission gave us the authority, so we think we’re on good legal grounds,” said tribal spokesman Carlos Bullock after conferring Tuesday with members of the tribal council.

[…]

The legal landscape for the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta appeared to improve last year when both the Interior Department and the NIGC issued administrative opinions that the two small tribes could offer certain types of gaming.

But earlier this year, the state won a marathon legal battle with the Tigua when a federal judge in El Paso ruled that the tribe’s entertainment center was really a thinly disguised gambling hall.

The Tigua now plan on offering permitted bingo-hall-style games that are legal in Texas.

In ordering the Tigua to cease offering “sweepstakes,” U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone also ruled that federal case law, which prohibited the gaming, trumped the opinions of the two federal agencies.

See here, here, and here for some background. This action by the state was completely expected, given past litigation and the noises the AG’s office had been making since the casino reopened. Both the Alabama-Coushatta and the Tigua tribes had tried again with their casinos under new administrative guidelines from the National Indian Gaming Commission, but the subsequent loss in court by the Tigua does not bode well for the Alabama-Coushatta. We’ll see how it goes.

Alabama-Coushatta casino opens

Get your gamble on, y’all.

Fourteen years after it was forced to close under threat of legal action by the state, the tribe’s modest casino reopened three weeks ago with little fanfare but great expectations.

Now, the vast, once empty parking lot outside the Naskila Entertainmnet Center is packed with cars by noon, as gamblers from around East Texas roll in to play electronic bingo under a vaulted ceiling of knotty pine.

The 365 blinking, beeping machines, with names like Gecko Wild, Moo La La and Double Hotness, draw players long starved for local gaming, and thus far, the reviews – even by folks losing money – are five-star.

[…]

More than 240 Indian tribes around the country offer certain types of gambling under the oversight of the National Indian Gaming Commission. In Texas, only the Kickapoo in Eagle Pass have done so without a legal challenge from the state.

The crucial breakthrough came late last year, when two federal agencies ruled that national Indian law superseded Texas’ authority to block either the Alabama-Coushatta in East Texas and the Tigua in El Paso from offering gaming.

Almost three decades earlier, the two small tribes had agreed to accept a ban on gaming as a condition of becoming federally recognized tribes. The Kickapoo received recognition without this condition and have offered gambling since 1996. They now have 3,200 machines in a large modern casino-hotel complex.

The state had sued the Tigua and the Alabama-Coushatta, forcing each to close its casino in 2002. While the Tigua have been in near constant litigation since, the Alabama-Coushatta adopted a less confrontational posture.

When both the U.S. Department of the Interior and the NIGC decided late last year that both have the right to offer Class II gaming, including bingo, electronic bingo and certain card games, the Alabama-Coushatta were quick to act.

What if anything the state now intends to do remains unclear. A spokesman for Attorney General Ken Paxton last week declined to comment on the issue.

See here and here for some background. Past statements from the AG’s office have suggested that they do intend to do something about this. It’s not like they have a great deal of respect for federal laws, after all. So if you want to sample the fare at the new Alabama-Coushatta casino, I’d advise doing it sooner rather than later.

Omnibus gambling bill gets committee approval

Brandi Grissom reports.

State Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, said today the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee approved the omnibus gambling measure that contains language that would allow the Tigua tribe in El Paso to resume gambling at Speaking Rock.

The measure, HJR137, would amend the Texas Constitution to allow voters to determine whether gambling should be allowed in their region.

I assume what this means is that the language for the omnibus bill has been approved, and will next go to the committee for a vote to be sent to the House floor. I say that because the Texas Legislature Online shows no recent activity for HJR137, and because the listed text of the bill is different from what Grissom provides (Word doc). A draft version of this bill had been released last week, so this is progress for it. Rep. Ed Kuempel, the chair of the committee, believes there is enough support in the House for this to pass. At this point, as with everything else, it’s a matter of time.

UPDATE: And now the TLO page has been updated to reflect the fact that this bill was in fact approved by the committee, on a 6-0 vote with three members absent. So it just needs House approval, then a vote in the Senate, along with the adoption of the enabling legislation.

Seventeen casinos?

Wow.

The chairman of the House committee that oversees gambling said Friday he has strong support for legislation that would open the door for 17 casinos, slot machines at racetracks, and Indian gaming in Texas.

Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, said the omnibus gaming bill, which would let voters decide whether to allow gambling in Texas, probably won’t be firmed up in his committee until next week. But he said the measure lawmakers are negotiating merges the interests of oft-competing resort casino developers and racetrack operators – as well as Indian reservations that had their casinos shuttered in 2002.

Maybe the Tiguas will get what they wanted after all.

Kuempel stressed that the details of the bill could change in the next week. But he said right now, lawmakers on the Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee have a framework that would allow up to 17 resort casinos: 3 on Indian reservations; 2 on the South Texas barrier islands; 1 in the Port Arthur area; 3 at Class 1 racetracks; 2 at Class 2 racetracks; and 6 others spread out across the rest of the state.

The measure would also allow slot machines at racetracks and other forms of gaming on Indian reservations.

That’s a hell of a lot of casinos, that’s all I know. Take a look again at the economic projections made by the racetracks and see if you think there’s room here for that large an expansion of gambling. I can’t wait to see what numbers get thrown around next week.

In the meantime, it would seem that the competing interests may have found a way to put aside their differences and get something on the table, as it were.

Outside a Capitol hearing on casinos and other gambling not allowed in Texas, an advocate for legalizing slot machines at horse and dog tracks called a pro-casino lobbyist a “pathological liar.”

Separately, the critiqued lobbyist said anyone suggesting that he scrawled on a handout and misrepresented Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s position on casinos was lying.

The testy moments last week served as reminders that the fight over bolstering legal gambling in Texas beyond betting on dogs and horses remains a legislative spectacle, entwining lawmakers, lobbyists, developers, Indian tribes, casino interests, tracks, and horse and dog owners, some of whom might feel like perennial players in a gamblers’ version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

The renewed bickering this session could again bog down efforts to expand gambling.

[…]

Rep. Edmund Kuempel, chairman of the House Committee on Licensing & Administrative Procedures, has said a gambling measure should be achievable this year.

Kuempel, who presided over hours of public testimony last week, huddled privately Monday with House sponsors of various proposals in hopes of reaching a common-ground package. “We’ve got to explore every possibility,” he said.

[…]

At the start of the session, Kuempel provided space in his office for casino and track interests to hammer out an agreement potentially bringing legislators together. Noting the state’s financial straits, Kuempel exhorted: “If you can’t get it together this time, all of you should be shot.”

Hey, as Adam likes to say on Mythbusters, “Failure is always an option”. And in this case, the entertainment value is nearly as high.

No Tigua casinos

We may still get some form of expanded gambling in Texas, but at least one form of it is off the table for this session.

The Tiguas hopes to restart lucrative gambling operations on their reservation are dead for this legislative session, state Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, said Friday.

Part of the reason was the criminal record of Tigua Gov. Frank Paiz.

“I believe the Tigua legislation is not salvageable,” Chavez said in an interview.

Lawmakers this week told the tribe chances were minuscule that any gambling legislation would pass this year.

Paiz’s 20-year criminal history, they said, diminished what were already small odds.

“There are insurmountable obstacles,” said state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who spoke with the tribe this week about its flagging gambling efforts.

My understanding of this is that bills specific to Tigua matters, such as HB1308 and HJR 108, both of which are Chavez bills, are dead. Other gambling bills, such as HB222 and SJR 31, are still in play.

More details are in this version of the story.

The El Paso Times reported on Paiz’s long history with the law last year after he was elected to lead the tribe.

Court records and police documents show that Paiz was charged with offenses including theft in 1987, drunken driving in 1992 and assaulting a police officer in 2001. He repeatedly failed to comply with the terms of his probation, and spent at least a month in jail. He was also charged with domestic violence, though the case was dismissed.

Paiz said then that he had changed, had gotten an education and had become a leader in the tribal community. The tribe, he said, knew about his past and decided to give him a second chance.

[…]

Chavez said she told the Tiguas that Paiz’s past would be a problem for legislators.

The only chance for gambling this year, she said, was an amendment to the Texas Constitution. That requires approval from 100 of the 150 House members and 21 of the 31 senators before the proposal could be placed on the ballot in November for voters to make a final decision.

Chavez said she could not ask 100 of her colleagues to vote for the tribe when its leader had such a problematic background. Doing so, she said, could put the lawmakers at risk in future elections.

“A CEO of any gaming corporation with the same exact background of the governor wouldn’t be allowed to sign a contract with the state, so it’s hard to ask my colleagues to do something a CEO can’t do,” she said.

So there you have it.

CLC gambling update

Today there will be committee hearings on various gambling-related bills. I am reprinting here an email sent by Suzii Paynter of the Christian Life Coalition, which is one of the leading organizations that are fighting the expansion of gambling in Texas, as it has a pretty good summary of what has gone on so far.

Casino Hearing

On Wednesday, April 8, the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures will hear all the major gambling bills filed in the House this session. There are 16 gambling related bills currently on the notice of hearing which can be found here. This hearing is sure to draw the most vocal gambling proponents from all segments of the casino industry. We think it is important that the committee hear the other side of the argument as well. The CLC will be at the hearing to offer testimony. This is an entirely new committee made up of members who may not know this issue. It is important that they know people out in the state care about the issue and are paying attention. If your representative sits on this committee it would be an excellent time to let them know you oppose the expansion of gambling in Texas. A list of the committee members and their contact information can be found here.

The CLC recently completed a comprehensive newsletter outlining our most important arguments against the expansion of predatory gambling and in support of our current family-friendly economy. You can view the newsletter here (large PDF).

First Gambling Bills Voted Out of Committee

On the same afternoon that the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee announced the agenda for Wednesday’s hearing, they quietly passed out two gambling expansion bills. Both bills now sit in the Calendars committee and await a chance to be considered on the House floor.

The first bill is HB 222, by Rep. Menendez (D-San Antonio). This bill would legalize poker to be played at electronic tables in certain bars, restaurants, horse and dog race tracks and on Indian reservations. The proponents claim that only simple majorities in both the House and Senate are needed to pass this bill. It is the opinion of the CLC, based on previous opinions offered by the Attorney General, that the element of chance inherent in this card game requires a constitutional amendment and the support of 2/3rds of the House and Senate. Additionally, the electronic facsimile of a game of chance makes this a Class III game as described under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). As other states have experienced, and according to IGRA, the approval of a Class III game in Texas will lead to the expansion of Native American gambling in Texas above and beyond what is contemplated in this bill and in a way that weakens the state’s ability to control further casino expansion.

The second bill is HB 1474 by Rep. Geren (R- Ft. Worth). This bill is meant to be a “clean up” bill to standardize and improve the regulation of Bingo in Texas. However, the bill also greatly increases the number and type of organizations that are eligible to receive a bingo license. The CLC is concerned that bingo in this state is moving far beyond the original public understanding of the game and that the charitable purpose is being watered down. Specifically, during the legislative interim period after last session, the lottery commission approved new bingo games which would allow versions of electronic pull tab bingo as well as a type of Keno. We are concerned that these new games could lead to a rapid expansion of electronic casino-style games. This threat is even more possible with the broadening of organizations eligible to apply for a license stated in HB 1474.

The list of members on the Calendars Committee can be found here. If your representative is member of this committee, let them know that the best way to defeat these bills is to never allow a vote on the House floor.

Indian Gambling Bills Get Hearing

On Monday, March 30, two Native-American casino bills by Rep. Chavez (D-El Paso) were heard in committee. The first bill, HB 1308 was heard in the subcommittee on Criminal Procedure of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

The CLC testified in opposition to this bill. HB 1308 would give a defense to prosecution for Indian tribes that conduct otherwise illegal casino gambling operations. The bill is the exact same piece of legislation which failed to pass the House last session. According to Rep. Chavez and other supporters, the bill would simply allow two tribes, the Tigua of El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta of Livingston to reopen illegal casinos that were shut down several years ago. While sympathetic to the desperate conditions on these two reservations, the Christian Life Commission opposes this piece of legislation because we believe that the consequences of passage may be far more expansive than what proponents are indicating.

HB 1308 does not improve the legal standing of gambling by the Texas tribes bound by the Restoration Act. The state has never used criminal charges to shut down illegal Native-American casinos. The state has the right to sue the tribe in federal court and seek injunctive relief. This is how the casinos were closed in the past and the bill cannot prevent the state from closing any casino opened by the Tigua or Alabama-Coushatta. The gambling activity the tribes seek to conduct is not just an illegal violation of the penal code that this bill amends; it is UNCONSTITUTIONAL according to the Texas Constitution. A statute passed by a simple legislative majority cannot trump the state constitution. While it may preclude criminal penalties the state may still seek to have any operating casino shut down in federal civil court. The bill is an attempt to expand gambling by a simple majority vote in the legislature rather than the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment. The end result of this bill would likely be more costly litigation on the part of the state in federal court.

Additionally, the vague language in the bill would actually open a legal loophole to Native-American tribes that are 1) named in the list of tribes referenced in the bill, 2) which have historic, recognized land ties to Texas and 3) are not bound by the Restoration Act. The list of tribes referenced in the bill includes over 300 tribes from across the country, several of whom have entered into agreements with state agencies acknowledging “historic property” in Texas. There are currently letters of intent to petition for recognition on file with the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 10 tribes seeking recognition in Texas.

The members of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee should hear from those opposed to this bill so that it is defeated in committee. A link to the committee and their contact info can be found here.

That afternoon, the House Committee on Border and Intergovernmental Affairs heard testimony on HJR 108. This Joint Resolution proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the Tigua tribe of El Paso to operate a full blown, Las Vegas style casino. The CLC testified in opposition to this bill as well. Any constitutional amendment which would allow Class III gambling as defined under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) would be a “trigger” for further Native-American casinos beyond what is authorized in this resolution. It is impossible to authorize gambling for only one tribe without affecting the rights of other tribes in this state. As has been the case in other states, once the Class III threshold is crossed, the state loses much of the ability to control casino expansion since many of the decisions will be made on the federal level.

A link to the members of the Border and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee can be found here.

A news report of these two hearings can be found here.

To learn more about HB 1308 and the history of Native-American gambling in Texas see here (PDF).

Couple things. First, as you know, I support HB222. Of all the various gambling expansion options I’ve seen, allowing for poker seems to me to be the most sensible and least potentially harmful. Plus, as a bridge player who has had the chance to play for money legally, I think poker is a legitimate game of skill and should be treated as such. In fact, poker players in Pennsylvania and South Carolina recently won court rulings that agreed poker is a game of skill. As such, it’s not clear to me that the AG’s opinion would agree with the CLC about the inherent level of chance here. Of course, I Am Not A Lawyer, and Lord only knows what Greg Abbott will do. The point is that recent legal history is on the poker players’ side. I welcome any feedback on that question, and on the other legal points raised, by anyone who has more expertise on the topic.

Second, you can’t talk about the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta tribes and the litigation over their past attempts to open casinos without noting that a lot of the opposition to them has come from out of state Indian tribes and casinos, who have an obvious interest in minimizing their competition, and that along the way some really sleazy double-dealing was done by former Christian Coalition honcho Ralph Reed and Tom DeLay’s felonious friend Jack Abramoff. Here’s some previous blogging on the subject, plus a couple of corrected links to Observer articles to give you the background.

Finally, just to reiterate, outside of HB222, I am officially agnostic on the subject of expanded gambling in Texas. I have plenty of issues with it, and I may wind up voting against any future ballot propositions to allow for more gambling, but I am not comfortable being opposed to the idea. I thought this email was informative and worth highlighting, but please don’t take that as an endorsement, because it’s not intended as one.