Long-standing tensions surface in Choctaw casino flap

JACKSON – Tensions have existed for nearly two decades between state-regulated casinos along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast and the Choctaw-regulated casinos on tribal lands in Mississippi.
They flared again this week when Gov. Haley Barbour said he plans to take the Choctaws to court over their plans to expand their casino operations to Jones County. He also informed Attorney General Jim Hood of his intention to hire private attorneys to litigate the issue for him.
Barbour’s decision to hire private attorneys came after Hood ruled that under the compact that former Gov. Kirk Fordice signed with then-Chief Phillip Martin, the Choctaws’ plan to build on tribal lands in Jones County is legal.
When the Republican Fordice and Martin signed the compact in 1992, casino gambling was a fledging industry in Mississippi. The state law allowing casinos, located on the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River, had been passed just two years earlier.
At the time no one envisioned the growth the gambling industry would enjoy in Mississippi.
Now casino gambling is a $2.47 billion industry generating almost $300 million in state and local tax revenue in Mississippi, according to the American Gaming Association. Only Nevada and New Jersey generate more gross revenue from casino operations.
In the Delta, cotton fields often end at the parking lots of brightly lit casinos that include amenities such as resort-level hotels and world-class golf courses. The same can be found on the sandy beaches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Harrison and Hancock counties.
Altogether, Mississippi has 30 such casinos, employing more than 25,000 people, under the regulation of the state Gaming Commission.
Thanks to the compact signed by Fordice and Martin, two additional casinos, just as flashy and with as many or more amenities, are located near Philadelphia, among the tall pine trees of east-central Mississippi.
Many state leaders, including legislators, have complained through the years that the state collects no taxes on those two casinos – the Silver Star and the Golden Moon.
Choctaws counter that the revenue collected from those casinos, which they regulate themselves, funds the education, law enforcement, health care and other services on the Mississippi Band of Choctaws reservation.
Now, by an 8-7 vote of their council, the Choctaws plan to open a casino on tribal land in the Bogue Homa community about 10 miles north of Laurel, the site of another part of the Choctaw reservation. That 27,000-square-foot casino would represent an $18 million investment by the Choctaws and employ about 250.
Barbour said the Jones County venture, which is scheduled to open in December, “is clearly inconsistent with the policy of this state to develop destination gaming for the economic benefit of all Mississippians.”
He added the casino would be “a slot parlor offering no amenities other than a snack bar.”
Strong opposition to the casino has developed both on the local and state levels, with officials such as U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant siding with the governor.
Efforts to locate Indian casinos in other parts of the state have been thwarted in recent years. The Choctaws tried to place a casino in Jackson County, which is the only one of the three Coast counties where gambling is not allowed.
That effort also was opposed by the local community and by Barbour. The casino plan eventually was rejected by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
And in the early 2000s, the Jena Band of Choctaws, based in Louisiana, tried to locate a casino in Tishomingo County. That plan also was opposed by the local community and by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
The Jena Band actually was represented by Haley Barbour, who then was a federal lobbyist. But Barbour said he was representing the Jena Band in efforts to locate a casino in Louisiana, not Mississippi.
As a gubernatorial candidate, Barbour said he opposed the expansion of casino gambling in Mississippi outside of the counties where it already existed.
As a governor, Barbour has been true to his word, though he was criticized by certain anti-gambling forces for leading the effort to allow the Gulf Coast casinos to build out of the water after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
Warren Strain, a spokesman for the Choctaws, said the Jones County effort is different from other attempts to build new Indian casinos in Mississippi. The site is land that has been dedicated in trust to the Choctaws prior to 1944 and would be covered by the compact signed by Fordice and Martin.
Hood agrees.
“Unfortunately, Gov. Fordice failed to restrict Indian gaming to tribal lands around Philadelphia when he entered into the tribal gaming compact. The compact states tribal lands (plural). The tribal lands in Jones County were certified by the Department of the Interior in the 1940s,” Hood said.
He added, “The career lawyers in our office have carefully reviewed other possible legal challenges to the proposed development; however, there is no apparent legal avenue to stop the development. Perhaps the Choctaws will negotiate some type of settlement with the state.”
Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, chair of the House Gaming Committee, said the compact signed by Fordice and Martin already has been challenged in court and “has been declared proper by state and federal courts.”
Moak said the Choctaws also plan to operate a bingo parlor at the site. He said that would be no different than the 75 or more charitable bingo parlors that operate in Mississippi and generate more than $100 million annually in tax-exempt profits.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal