THE CASINO – I look for the usual characters around the poker table: Big Tex in his Stetson, the inscrutable Phat Duc with dark glasses and cigarette in a long holder, Lucky Lady and the Port Arthur Kid. They’re not here, mainly because there is no poker table or card table and no dice in this casino. Only slot machines, 800 of them. This is Naskila Gaming Casino outside of Livingston, about 2 hours drive northeast of Houston. The casino is on the reservation of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, which is one of only three federally-recognized tribes in the state. There is no table gambling (casinos prefer “gaming”), no booze, but smoking is allowed in restricted areas, and they are smoky. So I am playing the slots – and losing. It is a weekday afternoon and the place is crowded. I am told it’s even more so on the weekends.
The Naskila Gaming Casino has a history of lawsuits trying to stay in business, as do the other Texas casinos. For a while, the Tigua tribe in El Paso had a casino until the state shut it down. They are trying to re-open, but the battle between the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Tiguas has been in the courts since 1999. In Eagle Pass, the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino is open. All these lawsuits and legal blockades by the state government are odd because, to say that Texans don’t allow gambling is like saying Texas doesn’t allow high school football. We have the state-run Lotto and scratch-offs, and poker parlors which may or may not be legal, depending on your lawyer and the Harris County DA. Pari-mutuel wagers on greyhound and horse racing, raffles, charitable bingo, and pull-tab bets are also legal in Texas. And, of course, the biggest gamble of all, driving on the West Loop.
Our state is surrounded by casinos, some right on our borders, to attract — one guess – Texans! New Mexico has one just outside El Paso. In Oklahoma, exactly 80.4 miles north of downtown Dallas, about an hour and a half drive, are the WinStar and Choctaw casinos. (The WinStar is the largest casino in the nation.) Farther afield, the Shreveport area has several casinos, also catering to the Metroplex. But the Daddy Rabbit is Louisiana. Some stats from our neighbor to the east:
Total gambling industry employees in Louisiana: 14,061
Percent of employees were able to get off welfare: 11.2
Percent of employees no longer receiving unemployment: 20.2
Percent of employees no longer receiving food stamps: 13.2
Percent of employees who have better health care because of their casino jobs: 63.7
And so on. As for the state of Louisiana, in 2017, the state collected $710 million from gambling, which is now the fourth-biggest source of tax revenue for the state, far surpassing the longtime champion, oil and gas. On the other hand, here is a figure the Cajuns don’t often trot out: “A Louisiana study on problem gambling revealed that as many as 275,000 Louisianans are involved in problem gaming activities,” the Louisiana Department of Health reported. And there is corruption, not exactly limited to Louisiana, but it has perfected government sleaze to an art form. Federal prosecutors won the conviction of former Gov. Edwin Edwards for taking payoffs from riverboat casinos, including $400,000 in cash at a restaurant parking lot from a man seeking a riverboat license, and more than $1 million from the owner of the Treasure Chest casino in Kenner. Family members of elected officials have earned big bucks by selling goods to the casinos, including $600,000 by the wife of a state senator.
Back at Naskila, about 400 people work here, including 200 Alabama-Coushatta tribe members – roughly one-sixth of the tribe’s membership. The center, named after a type of dogwood tree species in the area, generates about $5 million a year. That doesn’t count what is spent by visitors who want to stay longer than an afternoon. Accommodations in Livingston, about 20 minutes from the casino, are somewhat limited, but the town takes full advantage. A weeknight at a local motel costs $104. Not bad, but then they tack on $28.15 “Taxes & Fees” and another $7.99 “Service Fee.” Huh? What’s a service fee?
Moving on, how did the tribe, and thus the casino, end up here, you ask? The land was given to the tribe by the Texas Republic’s first president, Sam Houston. During the Texas War of Independence from Mexico, the Alabama and Coushatta tribes refused to recognize Mexican authority over Texas. The Kickapoo tribe was rewarded the same way. Little did Sam know that his rewards would turn out to be far more generous than he thought.
Texas gambling laws are some of the strictest in the nation, but each session of the Texas Legislature sees various bills introduced to permit casinos in the state, and each session the bills go nowhere. Supporters cite their own statistics. One study by TXP, an Austin-based economic consulting group, shows Texans are responsible for some $2.96 billion in gambling revenues to Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana each year – 38.6 percent of their collective gambling revenues. That number climbs to $4.37 billion per year when you throw in food, lodging and other expenditures Texans fork over when visiting other states to gamble. Opponents to gambling include religious groups and – right – casinos in Louisiana.
One last lottery note: Did you know that the Statue of Liberty, our beacon to the rest of the world to give us your tired, weak and huddled masses, at least until the wall is built, was partially paid for by gambling? The mastermind and sculptor of the statue, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, had trouble raising enough money to finish the project, so he held a lottery. Merchants in Paris donated prizes, and tickets were sold. The lottery was a success, but more money was still needed. Maybe Bartholdi should have tried his hand at the slots.
Ashby wins at email@example.com