By Jared Jernigan, Chairman of the Livingston-Polk County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors
Private-sector employers like myself are the backbone of our local economy. In East Texas, we believe the best social program is a good job, because people in this region would rather earn a paycheck from an employer than collect government benefits.
This is one of many reasons why business and civic leaders throughout East Texas support Naskila Gaming, the electronic bingo facility on the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas’ land near Livingston. As the second-largest employer in Polk County, Naskila provides quality jobs for its employees. But the economic benefit of this facility is even wider: Studies show that Naskila generates $170 million per year in economic activity for East Texas.
This economic value is especially needed right now, with a surge in unemployment caused by the pandemic. Unfortunately, the state of Texas is trying to shut Naskila down and put hundreds of East Texans out of work. The U.S. Senate could save these jobs by passing a bill before the end of the year that the U.S. House has passed unanimously — H.R. 759, authored by U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, which would effectively stop the state’s effort to close Naskila.
What’s most puzzling is that U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has told his colleagues not to move forward with the Babin bill. Cornyn’s decision has imperiled the 700 jobs directly or indirectly tied to Naskila and created great uncertainty for our community.
Cornyn still has time to stand up for the East Texas economy and help the Senate pass H.R. 759, but the clock is ticking. The Senate needs to act before the end of this year.
Naskila is the type of economic engine that East Texas needs. Even while the facility was closed for several months during the pandemic, Naskila continued to pay its employees and offer health insurance benefits. The facility recently reopened but has gone to great lengths to keep guests and employees safe by limiting the number of people inside at one time. This approach embodies why Naskila is so important to our community: Not only does it provide private-sector paychecks for hundreds of people and their families, but it is a great neighbor for all of us in East Texas.
If the Senate fails to act and the state eventually shuts down Naskila, it’s likely that many of the people who enjoy playing there will instead take their business to Louisiana casinos. Those casinos, of course, employ Louisianans, not Texans. Or maybe they will visit the border town of Eagle Pass, where the state is not trying to shut down an electronic bingo facility operated by the Kickapoo Tribe. Whether those dollars flow to Eagle Pass or Louisiana, it would be a devastating loss for families who work at Naskila and for the many businesses that benefit when guests come to Polk County.
We need Texas senators to help Texas — right now, before the end of this year. Senator Cornyn and his colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz, can be heroes in Polk County by helping the Babin bill become law. This would provide desperately needed certainty for the men and women who work at Naskila and their families. And it would ensure that we continue to build our East Texas economy not on government handouts, but on the dignity of earning a paycheck.