On any given weekend, the parking lot of the Choctaw Casino Resort here is filled.
Buses, cars and recreational vehicles litter the parking lot - many of them from Texas.
Those cars demonstrate one of the more unusual aspects of the Oklahoma economy. While the state continues to emerge from the 2009 recession, one of the strongest parts of our economic engine isn't the oil and gas industry or Oklahoma's agricultural sector. Instead, in many places, especially along south Interstate 35 toward Texas and in other parts of southeastern Oklahoma such as Durant, it's the state's Native American tribes and their strength in the gaming industry that keep local economies afloat and thousands employed.
Those gaming centers - huge multimillion-dollar casinos and resorts that rival anything found in Las Vegas or New Jersey - draw crowds and generate millions of dollars in revenue.
And most of it comes from Texas.
In fact, according to the American Gaming Association, Native American gaming centers in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana generated about $2.7 billion in revenue in 2009.
That fact hasn't escaped Texas officials.
Because Texas gamblers continue to cross the border in droves, taking their business - and their pocketbooks - to Oklahoma, many groups in Texas are moving aggressively to bring casino gambling to the Lone Star State.
Their goal: Keep Texas' money in Texas.
One organization, Win for Texas, estimates that of the $2.7 billion in gambling revenue spent by Texans in other states, $2.2 billion would remain within Texas' borders if legislation was passed to allow gaming in the state. Win for Texas also estimated that by allowing slot machines at Texas racetracks and on the state's three Indian reservations, Texas could create more than 77,500 jobs.
"Texans are spending billions of dollars - we're just not keeping it in Texas," Win for Texas spokesman Mike Lavigne said in reports published earlier this year. "We're no longer in competition with Las Vegas, but against Louisiana and Oklahoma."
Lavigne's group isn't the only one seeking changes in Texas law.
Other groups such as Texans for Economic Development and the state's three Native American tribes are also pushing lawmakers to remove restrictions to casino-style gaming in Texas.
Yet while many business, tribal and industry leaders are supportive of legislative changes, opponents include many of the state's religious leaders and Texas' popular three-term governor, Rick Perry.
"It's no secret that Governor Perry doesn't want gaming in Texas," said former Oklahoma Senate Pro Tempore Cal Hobson. "And that fact has helped gaming in Oklahoma a lot."
In southeastern Oklahoma and in cities from Ardmore to Thackerville, business, industry and tribal leaders continue to keep a close watch on their neighbors to the south, anticipating changes in Texas' gaming laws and working to prepare themselves for the day those changes occur.
In Durant, city and tribal officials have been working for several years to diversify the area's economy in the eventuality that Texas changes its laws.
"I would say the Cherokee Nation has prepared themselves in the event Texas were to approve gaming," said Durant Mayor Jerry Tomlinson. "But Governor Perry is not a fan of gaming, and I still think any change would be a few years off."
Still, while Tomlinson acknowledges that any change in Texas gaming statutes would be an uphill climb, he also said those changes would affect his town's economy. …