Bush holding back off-reservation gaming proposals

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The Bush administration is holding back off-reservation casino applications until it develops a new policy on the controversial issue, assistant secretary Carl Artman said on Thursday.

More than two dozen tribes are seeking casinos hundreds of miles from their reservations and even across state lines. Some have been waiting years for an answer on their applications.

But the Bureau of Indian Affairs won't be approving -- or disapproving -- any of the projects without the policy. "It would be dangerous to do so," Artman, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, said in an interview.

Artman hopes to come up with an initial draft and circulate it within the Interior Department in about a month. The administration probably won't engage in a major consultation effort in Indian Country but the affected tribes will be kept informed, he said.

And he cautioned that the policy won't affect non-gaming applications or on-reservation applications. "We're still moving forward on the vast majority of applications," Artman said.

The comments came after Artman spoke at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. He was one of four panelists who discussed the land-into-trust process and how it affects gaming.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," said Aurene Martin, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who served as principal deputy assistant secretary at the BIA prior to Artman's arrival.

The panelists said it's taking longer and longer to get land into trust due to controversies surrounding off-reservation casinos. But in the history of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, only three such projects have won approval at the state and federal level.

"The overall possibility of many applications is very small," said Michael Anderson, a lobbyist who served at the BIA during the Clinton administration.

During a question and answer period, Lorraine White, a chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York, took Artman to task for failing to reduce the land-into-trust backlog. She cited his recent comments to Indianz.Com that only about 200 tribes have fully completed applications and of those, only about a handful involve off-reservation casinos.

"Why isn't the department making decisions on completed applications?" said White, whose tribe has filed a lawsuit in hopes of forcing action. "It's not fair ... to sit on something and not take action and to sit back and allow people not to do their jobs. Why aren't decisions being made?"

The tribe has local support for a casino in the Catskills, about 300 miles from its reservation. Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) also backs the project and is only the fourth governor to concur with an off-reservation gaming application since IGRA was passed in 1988.

"Yours is the most complete application -- it has gone through all the checklist except the fee-to-trust process," Artman told White. Once the last step occurs, the tribe can finally start work on the casino.

But the BIA will be holding up the application for an even longer period. "We're going to move forward when we have a policy we feel good about," Artman added. "I think that will be shortly."

The Bush administration has already kept the Mohawks waiting for a year even though they have already completed their application. In December 2006, associate deputy secretary Jim Cason send a letter to tribal leaders that appeared to encourage them to focus their gaming efforts on the reservation.

The letter cited Congressional proposals to limit off-reservation casinos -- despite the failure of a bill to do just that in the 109th Congress, something White pointed out yesterday. Comparable legislation has not been introduced in the 110th Congress, whose Democratic leaders say other Indian issues, such as health care, housing and education, take priority over gaming.

The administration's reticence means it is possible that none of the completed off-reservation gaming applications will see a decision before President Bush leaves office. "Indian Country wants justice," White said.

Relevant Links:
Bureau of Indian Affairs - http://www.doi.gov/bureau-indian-affairs.html
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe - http://srmt-nsn.gov

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BIA tackles land-into-trust backlog (11/9)
New York tribe pushes Interior to act on casino land (11/1)
BIA still having trouble accounting for land-into-trust (10/5)
Cason explains misgivings on land-into-trust (4/20)
Artman jumps into job as new head of BIA (4/12)
Artman highlights priorities as head of BIA (4/5)
Leadership changes at BIA under Artman (4/2)
New York governor approves off-reservation casino (2/20)
Off-reservation gaming concerns at Interior (2/16)
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