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Indian gambling bill fails on tie vote in House 5-4-07

By JIM VERTUNO
AUSTIN (AP) - A rare tie vote in the Texas House sunk a bill that would have opened the door to resumed casino gambling on the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta tribal lands in Texas.

The vote early Friday morning ended 66-66, blocking Rep. Norma Chavez's bill from moving to the Senate.

The Texas Indian tribes hoped to use the profits from gambling to fund social and education programs on their struggling reservations.

“This is an Indian rights bill,” said Chavez, D-El Paso, when the debate started at about 11 p.m. Thursday. “It is a right of determination for what they can do for themselves.”

But the argument didn't whip up the extra vote needed to defeat hard-line conservatives bent on stopping any expansion of gambling in Texas.

Even if it had passed, the bill's prospects for approval in the Senate were considered slim.

Opponents in the House argued that allowing the Indian casinos would boost violent crime and said the gambling issue should be decided by Texas voters.

“Gambling is a tax on the poor, the uneducated and the addicted,” said Rep. Larry Taylor, R-League City.

Texas has three federally recognized American Indian tribes: the Tiguas, the Alabama-Coushattas and the Kickapoo. The Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta ran casinos before they were shut down for violating state law. The Kickapoo currently operate a limited casino in Eagle Pass.

The Tiguas won federal recognition as a tribe in 1987 and began their gambling operation in the mid-1990s with high-stakes bingo, then added slot machines. Eventually, the tribe earned about $60 million a year from its casino in El Paso.

In 2002, a federal court agreed with then-Attorney General John Cornyn of Texas that the casino violated the state's limited gambling laws and shut it down.

The Alabama-Coushatta tribe, located near Livingston in southeast Texas, operated a casino for nine months but was forced to close it in 2002.

Chavez's bill would have created a defense to prosecution for gambling activities on federally recognized Indian lands. She argued the state already allows forms of gambling with horse racing, the state lottery and bingo.

Lawmakers amended the bill to limit the types of gambling, banning slots but allowing games such as high stakes bingo, poker and pull-tab games, some of which are already played at charity halls and churches.

The Texas Eagle Forum and the Baptist lobby's Christian Life Commission have worked to defeat the bill, arguing the casinos would be unregulated.

Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, argued the casinos would boost violent crime and gambling addiction.

“The state can generate revenue without destroying peoples lives,” she said. “There are better ways to raise money.”

Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, called the tribes criminals for previously running casinos that were found to violate the law.

Chavez has said the casinos would help the tribes improve their economies and education and reduce unemployment. The tribes had agreed to send 10 percent of gross revenues into a state college scholarship fund, more than $50 million, Chavez said.

The Tigua tribe recently indicated it wants to build a casino on 10 acres in nearby southern New Mexico to replace its shuttered gambling operation in Texas. But the tribe has continued working to persuade Texas lawmakers to allow gambling again.
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