Analysis: Choctaw casino nothing but politics

The plan by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to build a casino in Jones County has drawn strong opposition, but some of it is rooted in politics.

The reason is simple: State officials have no authority to block the development on federally protected tribal land.

The proposal does, however, create an opportunity for several elected officials — and at least one candidate who’s trying to get in office — to make arguments that appeal to their voting base.

Take Republican Gov. Haley Barbour’s June 22 letter to Choctaw Chief Beasley Denson, urging him to reconsider the project that the governor described as a “slot parlor.”

Barbour also asked Attorney General Jim Hood, the lone Democrat in statewide office, to pursue legal action to halt the casino project.

Weeks later, Barbour sent another letter to Denson. It was signed by the other Republican statewide officeholders — Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, Auditor Stacey Pickering, Treasurer Tate Reeves and Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell.

Barbour, however, upped the ante on Monday, informing Hood that he’ll seek outside counsel to file suit to block the tribe’s casino development.

The list of opponents also includes U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, and U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, both Republicans. Steven Palazzo, a Republican candidate challenging 4th District U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., issued a news release last week. His argument: The casino won’t have the local support to be profitable.

Barbour has said the casino, which will be located in the Bogue Homa community near Laurel, will have a negative impact on the health and safety of local residents. The governor said even tortoises, birds, plants and snakes would be at risk because development could harm their natural environments.

Elements of all the arguments may be valid, but this kind of talk also goes over well with conservative voters who consider gambling a sin or vice.

But there’s a competition factor to consider. The new casino could lure some customers away from the 30 state-regulated casinos that operate along the waters of the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast region, and that could cut into state gaming revenues. It would also solidify the Choctaws’ hold on gambling traffic out of western Alabama.

The Choctaw casino won’t be regulated by the state. That means they’re not obligated to pay the gross gaming revenue tax imposed on the other gambling houses.

The facility in Jones County won’t be as ambitious as the Choctaws’ Pearl River resort in Neshoba County, but it’s not really a slot parlor, either. It’s deemed a casino because it will have Class III gaming, which means patrons will play against the house rather than against each other like they do with bingo, said tribe spokesman Warren Strain.

The plans call for a 27,000-square-foot building with about 500 to 700 slot machines and something akin to a fast-food restaurant.

The tribe said it will be a $17 million investment and would eventually employ up to 250 workers. About a third of those jobs would be reserved for Choctaws, Strain said.

The political jabs extend beyond the GOP.

Last week, Hood said the state has no legal grounds to pursue action to block the casino, and he said it’s a Republican’s fault.

Hood said that late Gov. Kirk Fordice, who was a wealthy GOP businessman, “failed to restrict Indian gaming to tribal lands around Philadelphia when he entered into the tribal gaming compact.” The compact has been upheld by state and federal courts, Hood said.

Then, Hood threw the ball back into the tribe’s court by saying, “perhaps, the Choctaws will negotiate some type of settlement with the state.”

Why would they? The development is on tribal land so they don’t have to give up a dime in state gaming tax on the millions of dollars that will eventually flow into the Jones County casino, one clinking coin at a time.

Shelia Byrd/The Assocated Press