Alabama-Coushatta urge passage of gambling legislation 5-1-07

AUSTIN (AP) - On the eve of another House debate on gambling, leaders of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of East Texas on Tuesday urged the legalization of limited casinos on American Indian land to spur economic growth.

“We believe legislation to allow gaming on our reservation is a lifeline for our community,” said Jo Ann Battise, chairperson for the Alabama-Coushatta tribal council.

Money generated by gambling would help provide better health and education services for tribal members, she said.

The Alabama-Coushatta leaders said Texans already are spending an estimated $3 billion on gambling in neighboring states. They pointed to a poll commissioned by gambling proponents that showed most Texans favor allowing gambling on existing Indian reservations. The tribe says if the pending legislation passes it would offer pull-tab games, bingo and poker and would run an alcohol-free casino.

“The Alabama-Coushattas share the values of all good Texans - respecting God, family and country,” Battise said.

Tribal officials have been in Austin for weeks meeting with lawmakers. They chose to speak again publicly at a news conference before a bill by Rep. Norma Chavez, an El Paso Democrat, comes before the House on Wednesday. Her proposal was temporarily sidelined last week on a technical point raised by a gambling opponent.

The conservative Texas Eagle Forum and the Baptist lobby's Christian Life Commission have been lobbying against casino gambling bills, and some Republican legislators oppose them.

Chavez's legislation would create a defense to prosecution for gambling activities on federally recognized Indian lands, essentially allowing it to resume on the Tigua reservation in El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta reservation near Livingston, northeast of Houston.

The Kickapoo tribe in Eagle Pass already operates a limited casino.

Chavez's bill is among the few on gambling making headway this legislative session.

On Monday, Rep. Kino Flores, a Palmview Democrat, asked fellow lawmakers to suspend House rules and let him hold a public hearing on a video slot machine proposal later this week. But he couldn't generate enough support to do that and will have to wait a few more days.

That vote could indicate the reception the video gambling proposal would get if it reaches the full House. It proposes a state constitutional amendment allowing race track operators and Indian tribes to operate video slot machines.

A sweeping Senate proposal seeking several fancy destination resort casinos in major cities and along the coast is stalled in a committee.

Meanwhile, a House committee approved a bill Tuesday that would legalize and regulate poker at Texas bars and restaurants and for charitable purposes. It next heads to the full House.

The Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta tribes ran casinos before they were closed under state law.

In 2002, a federal court agreed with then-Attorney General John Cornyn of Texas that the Tigua casino violated the state's limited gambling laws and shut it down. The Alabama-Coushatta operated a casino for nine months but was forced to close it in 2002.