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,
"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. …