Amid a high-stakes fight between the Texas horse racing industry and the state’s most powerful legislators over the issue of gambling machines, the federal government has dealt the state a blow from behind.
The National Indian Gaming Commission, acting on a ruling from the Department of the Interior, has said that two Texas tribes can begin to operate “Class II” gambling facilities.
Class II is a category under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allows for bingo games, but it has been developed by tribes in other states to include “cashless” bingo machines that are hard to distinguish from slot machines.
And if played at the same location as bingo, it can even include card games like poker so long as the house does not act as banker. It’s not a Las Vegas casino with blackjack, roulette and dice, but it’s close.
As far as gambling opportunities go, the horse racing industry’s efforts pale by comparison.
The state Racing Commission has approved “historic racing” machines that allow players to gamble based on the results of previously run races, with all identifiers taken out so nobody knows which horse actually won.
Key legislators objected, including state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. They say only the Legislature can approve things like the new machines.
Neither side has yet backed down.
But the federal action puts a whole new spin on things. It would allow Class II gambling at the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo near El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta reservation near Houston.
Texas has a long history of fighting tribal casinos, particularly against the Tigua tribe at Ysleta. That legal battle started after the Tigua opened a casino in 1993.
The state has mostly won in court, but skirmishes with the tribe have continued even until this year.
Now the Interior Department and the National Indian Gaming Commission have issued opinions that specifically disagree with those earlier court rulings.
The difference is over which federal law should apply to the two Texas tribes. The department and the commission say its the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, and the tribes meet all of the qualifications to operate Class II facilities without state approval.
It’s not hard to imagine the horse racing industry arguing that there’s no longer any reason for lawmakers to reject its meager request.