Doubling Down: Texas and Casino Gambling
Kyle Williams remembers when Texans knew his nation.
Standing along one of the few paved roads slicing the Alabama-Coushatta reservation, 90 minutes northeast of Houston, Williams, chairman of the tribal council, describes the days Texans flocked to this land. Cars streaming in at every hour. Lines of impatience snaking a quarter-mile long. People who'd never set foot on reservations, whose exposure to Native Americans was limited to Cowboys-Redskins games and reruns of The Lone Ranger, taking hours and days from their lives to visit the 10,000 acres allocated to an entire people.
Texans, visiting his nation. Bringing their money and leaving it behind. Visiting the only casino within striking distance of Houston.
"People were lined up," Williams says, stretching his hands to imagine the size. "There were lines like this during the week as well...Everyone could see what was possible. A lot of people's opinions changed when we had this for nine months. People that opposed us came here in support of us — especially among the outside community."
Williams's beige suit bunches around his shoulders and his sable-silk ponytail drapes across his back. He stands straight when describing the crowds who've now disappeared. Williams was just a slot technician at the time, charged with technical duties while the European-Americans flowed through the tribe's entertainment center. He describes the hundreds of slots, alongside a poker and blackjack table, turning a tribe nearing bankruptcy into a nation flipping $1 million in revenue a month.
The Alabama-Coushatta had initially voted in 1994 against installing a casino on their grounds. However, the fiscal impact on Texas's Kickapoo and Tigua tribes swayed dissenters. "We saw the big impact [gaming] had on Indian communities," Williams says. "And not only Indian communities, but surrounding areas, too." A subsequent vote, taken in 1999, showed two-thirds of the tribe in favor of gaming, and in late 2001, the first slots were installed. Gambling, and a $1 million-per-month rake, had come to the Alabama-Coushatta.
And then one day nine months in, it was gone. Three hundred employees let go. The largest source of income the tribe has ever known, forced to close by legislation and lobbyists seeking to coax those casino-goers to Louisiana and Oklahoma and New Mexico.
A federal court had ruled that the Alabama-Coushatta had violated the terms of their recognition, which, as argued by then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, stated that all gaming prohibited by the state of Texas was "hereby prohibited on the reservation and on lands of the tribe." The challenge came with the full-throated support of Texas's evangelical population, spurred on by a now-notorious lobbyist named Jack Abramoff. (Ironically, the Alabama-Coushatta remain a heavily Christian community and even forbade alcohol at their former entertainment center.)
"We already knew that when we opened, we were going to be in litigation," Williams continues. "We were prepared for that." The Louisiana-Coushatta, a related tribe just one state over, had been concerned about consumers opting for their Texas cousins and ended up enlisting the aid of Abramoff, the fedora-topped lobbyist later sentenced to nearly six years for conspiracy and tax evasion in 2006.
While secretly disparaging the Native Americans as "stupid mofos," "monkeys" and "fucking troglodytes," Abramoff used Christian connections in Texas to mobilize anti-casino forces. Through shell corporations and blatant corruption — Abramoff and his partner are believed to have received a total of $85 million from their Indian clients — the lobbyist managed to muster enough opposition to shutter the casinos of both the Alabama-Coushatta and El Paso's Tigua tribe in 2002. Less than a year in, the Alabama-Coushatta's best modern opportunity for self-sustenance collapsed.
With equal parts gall and venality, Abramoff then approached the Alabama-Coushatta with an offer to restore their casino but was found out before he could swindle more Native-American money.
"It was devastating," Williams says, his voice moving slowly through the subsequent drop-off. "Everyone could see what was possible — at the time, when we were open, we were one of the highest-paying employers here in the surrounding area."
A visitor asks Williams about Abramoff, but the chairman claims the name provokes no reaction on the reservation. Nobody brings him up. No one thinks about him. But it's Abramoff's work — his choice to blinker both Texas legislators and tribes — that ended the only casino the Alabama-Coushatta have ever known. It was Abramoff's slimeball politics that forced the Alabama-Coushatta to revert once more to smoke shops and land cultivation as their sole, and depreciating, sources of income. It was Abramoff's grease-stained fingerprints, his choice to skim the profits and to try to lobby both for and against the tribe's casino, that directed Williams and his people back onto Washington's dole.
That was more than a decade ago. In the interim, the tribe, which sued Abramoff and settled out of court in 2007, has sunk nearly $3 million into attempting to change the federal language prohibiting its casino. The people have limped on with federal aid and HUD housing. The tribe has watched its ranks grow — there are now 1,150 full-blood members — but has resources enough to support only 600 on the reservation, while 80 families wait to move onto the land.
Loblollies and vines drape and smother part of the former tourist facilities. A lone Big Thicket train lies dormant, corralled by unkempt undergrowth. The nearby campground, surrounding a calm cerulean lake, seems as empty as the rest of the reservation.
And Williams can only offer so much relief. He can only carry so much pride when describing the local government-store building. He can only force a smile when describing the temporary thin-sided houses planted beside the dirt roads. There is only so much he can do for his people.
Which is why Williams — along with the few nearby cities that still know the Alabama-Coushatta exist — is pouring everything he can into bringing the casino back to his land. Flying to Washington, DC. Trekking to Austin. Talking about forgoing a 2002 federal court-awarded $270 million (to the tribe for the historic loss of their land to the U.S. government) — not yet dispensed — just to reopen the small casino his tribe once maintained. Asking those he can to allow his people the business they once knew and for the fairness that most other states enjoy.
Because if 240 other tribes across the nation can game and Texas can still allow a casino for the Kickapoo, why is it that the Alabama-Coushatta have to continue with a burned-out amphitheater and overgrown shacks? Why are they the ones who can't reap the benefits that hundreds of other tribes across the country now know?
"We were once told the Kickapoo lived under a bridge in little shacks, and now they're putting forward a $90 million renovation," Williams says. "It didn't only impact the tribal community — it impacted the surrounding community...Our casino gave us a sense of hope."
A bill has finally been presented during this legislative session that seeks to revive the Alabama-Coushatta's casino. And if certain observers are to be believed, and if the necessary steps are met, Houston could soon find itself with a full-blown casino just beyond its northeastern reaches. After all, if video lottery terminals, which some consider Class III gaming, are also legalized at local horse racetracks — another possibility during this legislative session — the Alabama-Coushatta could eventually petition to have their slots returned, along with whatever additional games they'd like.
Roulette and craps. Baccarat and poker.
"It's a basic issue of fairness," says Jim McGrath, one of Williams's advisers. "There's one tribe in the state of Texas federally recognized to game and another here that cannot. Before you even get into the economics, it's about basic fairness."
Naturally, much has changed in Texas since the entertainment complex's closure. Awareness of the Alabama-Coushatta's casino — publicity for which existed only through word of mouth, according to Williams — has faded. People have moved on to other forms of entertainment; it's entirely possible that the casino's return would face an indifferent populace.
However, if Let Texans Decide, a lobbying organization dedicated to expanding gambling options in the state, is to be believed, Texans are as dedicated to the concept of gaming as they've ever been. Citing a formula that combines information provided by state gaming commissions and field research, Let Texans Decide, founded last year, says that Texas hemorrhages some $2.96 billion annually to neighboring states, with the bulk going to Oklahoma and Louisiana.
"Now, I'm not mad at those states — I think they're smarter than we are and that they're using a lot of Texas money to fund lots of programs," says John Montford, a former state senator and current spokesman for Let Texans Decide. "There's no way we can compete with them financially...They've contributed millions of dollars to the Texas Legislature, which is a whole lot more than they're contributing in their own states. My hat's off to them — they're very cleverly positioned to enjoy Texas's largesse."
While critics can paint Let Texans Decide's formula as a statistical head-fake — after all, the casinos, not the state, would take the lion's share of the profits — there's scant dispute that Texans are as susceptible to gambling as the rest of the nation. In addition to the numerous buses running daily from Houston and Dallas, there's little that better illustrates this financial osmosis than the parking lots at WinStar World Casino, in Thackerville, Oklahoma, and L'Auberge du Lac, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, packed bumper to bumper with Texas license plates.
"What just gets my gall is that when you drive to Louisiana, 75 percent of the people there are in Texas cars," says Hal Wiggins of Houston, who trained filly Rachel Alexandra, winner of the 2009 Preakness Stakes. "My blood gets boiling. It's gotten to the point where I don't even like to look at license plates."
The survey that Let Texans Decide cites actually paints a bleaker portrait — it claims that 90 percent of those frequenting the Oklahoma casinos carry Texas plates — but the point stands: While Texas remains one of the few states without any form of large-scale casinos, Baton Rouge and Oklahoma City continue to line their budgets with Texans' cross-border economy. Schools, roads, law enforcement — all that infrastructure, buttressed because Austin isn't willing to allow the kind of gaming many constituents clearly want.
A pair of Senate bills, however, have been proposed that would alleviate some of the pressure that's sending gamblers to Lake Charles and the Chickasaw Nation. The first, sponsored by Sen. John Carona, would allow the Alabama-Coushatta the tribal casino they once knew, so long as the federal language prohibiting it likewise changes. The second, filed by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, would also attempt to legalize VLTs at the state's 13 licensed racetracks.
As both measures seek to expand gambling, however, the Legislature wouldn't be the only group deciding on such growth. Any gaming extension would require constitutional approval, needing 100 House votes, 21 Senate votes and, as early as this fall, majority support from Texas voters.
True to its name, Let Texans Decide has published multiple surveys showing that upwards of 85 percent of Texans would prefer to vote on the matter. That's not to say that there's 85 percent support on expansion as such; rather, it means that Texans, who those on either side of the debate consistently assure us are the finest people in the nation, would prefer direct democracy instead of the small-r republicanism they currently enjoy.
"Texans don't like to be told what they can or can't do with their money," Montford observes. "Texans are sophisticated, independent, freethinking folks. What's wrong with a vote of the people?"
Even then, it's not simply the license plates and improved infrastructure that gambling proponents cite as reasons for expansion. Illicit eight-liners still flourish in Texas, so there's support to legalize and regulate them. And the entire ban smacks of nanny-statism, flying in the face of Texans' purported independence. Banning gambling — like barring drugs and prohibiting prostitution — forces it underground, shovels it elsewhere. Nothing is stopped. Things are merely shuffled.
These attempts at legalization have been coming ever since the Texas Lottery was created in 1991. None have ever achieved a two-thirds majority in the legislature, and none have ever been put before the state's voters. And if such measures couldn't pass in 2011 — when Texas was facing one of its worst budget crunches in recent memory — there seems little impetus to pass anything in 2013 with the state flush and rolling.
But then, as Oklahoma and Louisiana continue to dredge Texans' pockets, the reality persists that the state has plans to reinstate only part of the $5.4 billion hacked from public education in 2011. Any talk of a tax hike blanches legislators and voters alike. Suddenly, gambling expansion looks more palatable than at any previous point.
"As I move around my district, more and more folks tell me to please support [gambling expansion]," says Democratic state Rep. Joe Farias. "This year has probably had more buzz about voting on a gambling bill...We're trying to find a funding mechanism for public education and for the other agencies that took a hit. And public education has been the big driver for it."
The Alabama-Coushatta and the public-education backers aren't the only factions pushing for gaming extension. For while the tribe and the schools will continue to exist, though with fewer resources, there's no guarantee that the world of Texas horse racing — and more generally, the state's equine industry — will endure in any recognizable form if it doesn't land the slots it seeks and soon.
It's no secret that horse racing in Texas has shed both business and prestige over the past decade. While there are few industries that carry more cultural import, few that are closer to the state's heart — what is a cowboy without his steed, anyway? — the same states stealing Texas's gambling dollars are also swiping the state's horse-racing monies. As Texas tracks are forced to make due with decreasing handles, breeders and owners and trainers have spent the past decade shipping their horses to parks that offer additional gaming, standing just beyond Texas's borders.
"I want to run in my hometown, to support Texas racing, but at the end of the day you have to do what's right for your business," says Bill Casner, an owner who worked with 2010 Kentucky Derby Winner Super Saver. "There's no incentive to have a Texas-bred horse now, because it's next to worthless, especially compared to Louisiana-bred, Oklahoma-bred, New Mexico-bred. They have no value."
Montford, originally from West Texas, noted that the most surprising aspect of his recent tours has been witnessing the depths of the drop-off in Texas horse breeding. "I'm from West Texas, so [you see] the virtual decline of the horse-breeding industry," he says. "You've got breeders going to where they can try to do better. And I was frankly shocked to learn that across Texas, everywhere I go, breeders are leaving the state."
"The neighboring states have so successfully used their gaming to cannibalize our population and funding and everything else," says Dr. Jackie Rich, a veterinarian and president of Texas HORSE, an organization attempting to expand gambling options on racetracks. "Our breeders and owners have to go where the money is. It's just decimated the entire equine industry of Texas. It's dying."
The numbers seem to justify the cynicism facing the industry. According to data shared by HORSE, race dates have dropped by 46 percent over the past decade. In the same time frame, purses have dropped by more than half. The foal crop has collapsed by nearly 60 percent. Everything — the mares, the thoroughbreds, the entertainment — has headed elsewhere.
"It doesn't take long to get this circular process going," says Dan Fick, executive director of Texas HORSE and former executive director of the American Quarter Horse Association. "The more money you have for purses, the better horses you're going to get and the more money will be wagered because they're better quality. [How] do you get people to come to Texas to race? You don't. The people still racing are the people who are already here and maybe some others who can't be competitive in other states. But the industry will continue to decline."
And it's not simply those who've remained, those who have seen their ranches and race parks degrade, who have noted the drop-off. According to Casner, who grew galloping horses on the far side of El Paso before relocating to Kentucky, Texas has all but damned its equine industry by preventing any additional gaming at parks. "It's like you have three smartphone stores surrounding Texas, and we're still selling flip phones," Casner says. "And, hey, you know what — who are those states supported by? Texas residents!"
While the states surrounding Texas do maintain large-scale casinos, most of their take comes from slots and VLTs. That is, Oklahoma and Louisiana and New Mexico have decimated Texas's horse racing through video games, allowing the consumer a secondary style of gaming between, or in addition to, the races.
Other states have been in the situation in which Texas currently finds itself, surrounded and disintegrating. Kentucky, another state noted for its equine history, was pinned between states offering additional gaming. According to Corey Johnsen, president of Kentucky Downs, the state granted a couple of parks video-game-style entertainment — a take known as "historic racing" rather than traditional slots — only in late 2011. In the 19 months since legalization, the two tracks involved have seen their revenues increase 500 percent.
"Frankly, Texas should be at the top," says Johnsen, the former president of Grand Prairie's Lone Star Park. "It has everything: the land, the horseman, the heritage. The infrastructure is there. [But] it's virtually impossible to compete there...It has no alternate forms of gaming, and virtually every state has something."
Just to be clear, though, this isn't some distant, localized West Texas phenomenon. Every county and innumerable Texans have been affected by the drop-off in the equine industry. "When you see people that had been at your farm for eight years, and you see them at a horse sale or the racetrack, the conversation is always the same: They had to go where the purse money was," says Danny Shifflett, 77-year-old manager at Hempstead's Lane's End Texas Stallions. "We're sitting here with the most potential of any state in the Southwest, but all we're doing is supplying the other states with support and revenue."
Despite the ostrich races and the country concerts, Houston's Sam Houston Race Park has fared no better. President Andrea Young says hundreds of jobs have been lost since she took over six years ago. And the potential legislation — the potential legalization of VLTs — is about jobs and the potential to save the ones that are still going to be cut. According to a 2011 survey by TXP, an Austin-based consulting firm, Texas would generate nearly 80,000 jobs and $8.5 billion in "economic activity" should racetrack slot machines be implemented in 2013.
Still, Young doesn't want to make VLTs into something they're not. The machines won't be a panacea. They're barely even a start. "It's a Band-Aid — it's mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, not a solution," she says. "It's not even getting us out of the emergency room."
But they're something. They're better than the current reality, better than the situation that all but encourages the investors and the owners and the bettors to uproot for states that provide as much gambling as people want. VLTs may not recoup the losses incurred over the past decade, but they appear to be the only shot the horse industry has at beginning a path back to relevancy. "I'm no optimist about it at all," Casner states. "It would shock me if sanity prevailed. It would just shock me...I don't think the Texas Legislature really gives a damn about the Texas horse industry."
And perhaps they don't. Or maybe they've staked out a position from which they can't hide. Because there, written starkly in the Texas GOP's 2012 platform, is a promise, verbatim, to oppose any potential extension of gambling:
"We oppose the expansion of legalized gambling and encourage the repeal of the Texas State lottery. We oppose dedicating any government revenue from gambling to create or expand any government program."
This is the platform to which the majority of both the Texas House and Senate have pledged support. This is the platform for which the majority of Texans voted in 2012. This is the platform upon which, contra Montford's calls, the majority of Texans have already decided.
"On the whole idea of letting people decide, I tell folks that people get the chance to decide already," says Rob Kohler, the leading lobbyist opposed to gambling expansion. "You're basically disenfranchising people who've already participated in the process."
Kohler, who works with the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, will affirm to anyone who listens that Texas's electoral model is the "gold standard" of democracy. Any further slide toward pure democracy runs counter to this state's politics. "What about people who've already voted?" he asks. "What about people who've already chosen? Everyone has a right to participate, but don't try to trick people."
This focus on prohibiting gambling is twofold. First, there remains a moralistic component — the same strain that opposes same-sex marriage, abortions, et al. — that the Right cites. "I think there's a moral component," says Cathie Adams, president of the right-wing Texas Eagle Forum. "I do call [gambling] a vice, and morally it is wrong to put upon those who you know cannot best provide for their families already. So many people may think that the streets are lined with gold in Texas."
Families break. Children learn improper ethics. The Christian God stands displeased. And on it goes.
But this opposition to gambling doesn't stem just from the same religious component that keeps certain counties dry. Rather, the past two decades of experience with the Texas Lottery have shown detractors what can happen when, as they see it, gambling infiltrates the system and begins to prey upon the weakest.
Kohler, who worked with the Texas Lottery for nearly a decade, points to recent survey data shared by the Texas Lottery Commission. Conducted by the University of Houston's Hobby Center for Public Policy, the TLC's 2012 demographic study shows that 61 percent of those participating in the Lottery are white, with 13 percent of participants black and 21 percent Hispanic. It also states that more than 40 percent of those participating have either a college or a graduate degree.
However, while this jibes with certain imagery in recent Texas Lottery advertisements — see the recent television commercial with the well-heeled Caucasian man doing his prototypical white-guy dance — it remains strongly misleading. The TLC survey pool stood at 62 percent white and 19 percent Hispanic — even though, according to the 2010 Census, the state's demographic makeup stands at 45 percent white and 38 percent Hispanic. (The black population remained constant in both surveys.)
The educational discrepancies remain just as stark. While 41 percent of TLC respondents had either college or professional degrees, in reality, according to the Census's American Community Survey, only 32 percent of Texans have actually attained such educational levels.
"One of the things that time and information did for me is change my opinion because of the predatory nature of the Lottery in maintaining the amount of funds it sends to the state budget," says state Rep. Garnet Coleman, who represents one of the lower-income districts of the state and is one of the few Democrats who oppose gambling expansion. "People are seeing stars and glitter as opposed to the negative side that comes with casino gaming. People have to go in with eyes wide open."
Kohler's supporters also claim that the Lottery has misappropriated profits and misled legislators, but representatives of TLC vociferously dispute the claim and point to the $1 billion the commission annually generates for public education. "While we respect folks like Mr. Kohler and his viewpoints, and anyone that has sensitivities about any form of gaming, I've not ever really heard another solution for providing that $1 billion," says TLC spokesperson Kelly Cripe.
Still, time and information have also begun denting the other gambling methods recently cited by expansion supporters. In Kentucky, for instance, a case has been appealed to the state Supreme Court challenging the legitimacy of the additional gaming systems that have recently helped revive the state's equine industry.
"They're basically slot machines," Kent Ostrander, executive director of the Family Foundation of Kentucky, says of the historic gaming machines. "The government should not make its citizens losers in order that it can be a winner — government should protect its citizens. When the state is on the cusp of issuing [gambling] licenses, what they're actually doing is issuing hunting licenses for the wealth of its citizens."
But these are broad, somewhat specious issues. Moralism is intangible; the Texas Lottery is a government-run game and subject to attendant scrutiny. If and when the Alabama-Coushatta and racetracks land their gaming, individual Texans — individual Houstonians — will be the ones to gain and suffer and triumph and collapse. Gaming options will proliferate. Gambling addiction will likely swell alongside.
"[Of all types of gambling], video gaming is the most addictive," says Bob Cabaniss, executive director of Virginia-based Williamsville Wellness, one of the nation's more notable treatment facilities. "It's the fastest, and with old slot machines you pulled a handle, and now you just push a button. The more access...the bigger the problem's going to be."
As for the revenues that could be generated and the potential for an educational boon: "It's always to help schools. Everything's to help schools," Cabaniss muses. "It's almost like blood money — we spend this money and we're good guys."
"It's interesting to see who's for it and who's not and why," says state Rep. Lance Gooden, one of the few Republican members of the House who say they're willing to send the vote to their constituents. "None of it's for moral reasons — it's 100 percent about money."
Houston, of course, is no different from any other megalopolis, any other population center, with its gamers and addicts and victims. These are people in all castes. Gambling abuse doesn't settle on any particular demographic.
For example, one local gentleman, now offering his story to anyone calling Gamblers Anonymous for help or information, knew the Alabama-Coushatta's casino well. This man, whom we'll call Dan, was a white-collar six-figure type. Never gambled much in his youth, never really bet in his young days of risk and hormones. And then he grew, and he married, and his children left for school, and his wife left for work: And something broke. Suddenly, golf wagers jumped. Suddenly, errands turned into runs to underground eight-liners. Suddenly, business trips were redirected to the fluorescent haze of Oklahoma and Lake Charles and Las Vegas.
Dan hit an early run that hitched him to the gambling he'd never known. "I became one of the idiots I used to shake my head about," he says, repeating the story he shares with those who call. "Gambled every day that I could. If I wasn't gambling, I was thinking about gambling or how to get the money to gamble, or thinking about how to get the money back that I'd begged, borrowed or stolen."
A quarter-million in debt. Employer credit cards lifted and lost. Phantom accounts opened in his spouse's name. And lying. Lying every day. Lying to every person, to every neighbor and partner and loved one that he knew.
"There never seems to be a winning big enough to make the smallest dream come true," Dan says. "All these lies are directed toward allowing us to continue to gamble. When we lose, we gamble; when we win, we keep gambling. We can't stop. We've lost the ability to stop."
Years passed and bank accounts buckled. His employer began asking questions. Dan lied, knowing he could risk one final run, one final rush. He had $600 remaining — blew half of it on the drive to Louisiana. He got to the casino. Parked, walked in. Looked for whatever was closest to the door. Poker it was.
"Best cards I ever got in my life," he remembers. "I lost everything. Lost straights, lost flushes, lost full houses. The only hand I remember winning was when everyone else folded." But that fold was early; the losses came after. His wallet — his accounts, his options, his head — was empty.
It was 4 a.m. by the time Dan walked back to his car. The lot had thinned, but not by much. A neon sign buzzed above: "Texan Wins $1 Million!" He smiled wanly. Not this one.
Dan opened his trunk and pulled out a rifle. One bullet in the chamber. One bullet in the chamber for years. Dan put his head on the roof, felt the cool morning metal on his cheek. The barrel met his eye. Circle to circle. Exit to entry. "God, forgive me for what I'm about to do." The neon light flickered above, and his thumb reached for the trigger.
A thought slid in from nowhere he recognized. "The first rational thought I'd had in years," he says. A thought to confess. A thought to amend and to open up to those who'd sniffed and guessed and discovered the threads of lies slithering through every relationship he knew. Honesty held his thumb and dropped it. Dan climbed in the car and drove back.
After 50 days in prison and a decade of probation — after losing anything he'd held close — Dan has found work as a builder, tying his college degree and executive background to the drywall he now hangs for a living. He hasn't seen a single casino since he joined Gamblers Anonymous. He hasn't laid a single bet, even though each day is as exhausting as the previous one.
"It's probably the easiest condition to hide, compulsive gambling — the only people you have to hide it from are the ones closest to you and the ones that want to believe you, " Dan says. "I saw this one study that asked why compulsive gamblers gamble, and one scientist said it was for the money. He couldn't be more wrong."
A boarded-up hotel sags on the eastern side of Livingston, the town nearest the Alabama-Coushatta's reservation. Weeds and overgrown pampas wrap the warped cyclone fence. A lone black cat scurries across the balcony, the only sign of life in a bloated, bleached building. "Local cities, they started booming," Kyle Williams says, recalling what his people's casino brought. "Hotels and restaurants were everywhere. And once our complex shut down, those went out of business."
Indeed, the Alabama-Coushatta weren't the only ones benefiting from the casino. Of the 300 people employed, only 80 were Native Americans — the rest came from nearby towns. The fiscal ripple didn't end at the reservation line. And now, touring the outer rings of Livingston, you can see the crater left by the casino's closure.
The tribe, however, hasn't forgotten its neighbors — after all, Sam Houston originally demarcated the Alabama-Coushatta's land because of their aid in the Texas Revolution against Mexico. Even though their revenue collapsed following the end of gaming, the Alabama-Coushatta have continued to maintain the region's only Head Start program, with 90 percent of the children bused in from non-reservation lands.
But now, with meager revenues and looming sequestration cuts — Williams says 8-10 percent of the tribe's budget will likely be axed as a result of falling federal funding — the Head Start program, one of the oldest in the nation and one of the jewels of the tribe's infrastructure, looks to take a large hit. "We used to be able to ask for the things we would need," says Billie Sue Williams, the program's director. "But with the budget we have, we now have to think twice."
Kyle Williams, as it stands, was a product of this Head Start program some 30 years ago. And he now runs a nation. And he's pushing for legislation that will be, he says, a lifesaver. He stands tall — while a tribal boy with a gap-tooth smile, a black girl with pigtails and a Hispanic boy in a pink Superman cape squeal past his legs — and says that there's little that can help more than, of all things, gambling.
It's the same as the rhetoric from those in the equine industry. It's similar to the rhetoric of those who want to see public schools buoyed without a consequent tax hike. And if polls are to be believed, it's an idea that nearly nine in ten Texans would like to decide on for themselves. It's rhetoric that the state has heard for a decade and that might finally catch on.
"Most Texans I know don't need guidance from any organization to figure out how they think and what they want to do with their money," says Montford. "I'll fight to the bitter end to let others campaign against it, but let's not let a bunch of organizations that feel like they're smarter decide." And now that we're here, in 2013, with decades of attempts and momentum pitching forward, Montford is blunt. "I'm in it for the long haul. But I kind of like the odds."
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