El Paso’s Tigua Indians might get an unintentional ally in their decades-long battle with Texas over gambling — one of the world’s biggest casino owners.

Sheldon Adelson, the owner of Las Vegas Sands Corp., is planning to push for expanded gambling in Texas during the 2021 legislative session. The Texas Legislature has historically been averse to expanded gambling.

Sheldon Adelson

Without intervention by the Texas Legislature or Congress, the Tiguas’ Speaking Rock Entertainment Center could be forced by court orders to close or downsize in 2021

While Adelson wouldn’t be lobbying on behalf of the Tiguas, federal law likely would require the state to allow its tribes — the Tiguas, Alabama Coushatta and Kickapoo — to offer forms of gambling that are allowed for others.

“If and when this push begins, I’m going to be sure that any bill that may advance gaming, that it advances guarantees that the Tiguas are able to operate their casino,” said state Sen.-elect César Blanco, D-El Paso. 

Tigua tribal officials did not respond to a request for comment on Adelson’s planned lobbying efforts.

Three decade fight

The Tiguas and the state have fought for almost 30 years over gambling at their Lower Valley reservation, with the federal courts almost always siding with the state. The courts have held that the Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1987, prohibits the Tiguas and Alabama Coushatta tribe of East Texas from offering gambling that isn’t allowed elsewhere in Texas. The Kickapoo in South Texas are allowed to provide some gambling because they’re covered by another federal law, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The latest ruling on Tigua gambling came in 2019, when U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez of El Paso issued an injunction ordering the Tiguas to stop offering bingo and electronic games because they violated state law. The injunction was put on hold while the tribe appealed.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Martinez’s ruling earlier this year and the Tiguas appealed to the Supreme Court.

The high court has given the parties until Jan. 11, 2021, to file arguments on whether the case should be heard. The Supreme Court previously has refused to hear Tigua gambling cases in 2002, 2003, 2012, and earlier in 2020.  

In July 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow the Tiguas and Alabama Coushatta to continue their gambling operations. But the bill was never taken up by the Senate and will die when the current Congress adjourns early next month.

Another gambling push

The Texas Legislature has never approved casino-style gambling in Texas. The closest moment came in 2001, when the House of Representatives approved a bill to allow casino gambling on tribal land. But the bill died in the Senate.

Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton — all Republicans — have said in recent years that they oppose any expansion of gambling in the state.

But Adelson — one of the largest donors in the country to Republican candidates — sees an opportunity in Texas. He and his wife Miriam contributed $4.5 million in September to Republicans’ ultimately successful efforts to maintain control of the Texas House of Representatives. Miriam Adelson also contributed $10,000 to Paxton’s re-election campaign in 2018.

The Tiguas, who gave heavily to state and federal candidates two decades ago, have greatly reduced such contributions in recent years and largely have given only to El Paso area candidates.

The Tiguas have had two lobbyists in Austin in recent years to represent their interests.

Las Vegas Sands has hired 12 lobbyists since November to push for Texas gambling expansion in the legislative session that begins next month, according to Texas Ethics Commission reports.

“We view Texas as a worldwide destination and one of the top potential markets in the entire world,” Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands’ top lobbyist, said last week in Austin. “Texas is considered the biggest plum still waiting to be out there in the history of hospitality and gaming.”

Adelson’s interest in Texas comes amid media reports that Las Vegas Sands is considering selling its flagship casinos in Las Vegas.

César Blanco

Abbott and Patrick, whose support would be vital to any gambling initiative, have not commented on Adelson’s efforts.

Blanco, who is moving to the Senate after six years in the Texas House, said financial challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, might cause some lawmakers to rethink their opposition to gambling and other “sin taxes.”

“So these are big ticket items, big costly items that we’re going to need to fund in a time where we’re having a deficit because of the pandemic. So gaming could be a potential revenue source along with others, like marijuana and and other things,” he said.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.