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House leader vows fight against tobacco tax bill
Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The Congressional Native American Caucus will work to kill tobacco tax legislation that opens up tribes to state jurisdiction, a key House lawmaker said on Tuesday.

Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), the Democratic co-chair of the caucus, said there were efforts underway to defeat H.R.2824, the Internet Tobacco Sales Enforcement Act. At the impact week meeting of the the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), he called the bill an intrusion on tribal sovereignty.

"It's contrary not only to the Constitution, it's contrary to specific federal law," Kildee told tribal leaders who gathered in the Washington, D.C., area.

Agreeing was Mark Van Norman, the executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), the largest inter-tribal gaming organization. He said the bill has "far-reaching effects" because it authorizes states to enforce their laws in Indian Country.

But the harshest provision, he said, would allow states to bring lawsuits, in federal court, against "persons" who try to avoid state tobacco taxes. The bill defines "persons" to include tribal governments and Indian retailers, and it toughens civil fines and criminal penalties for alleged violators.

"So that means the state attorney general, they don't go to the federal government and say let's sit down on a government-to-government basis," he said, "they take you into federal court."

The House Judiciary Committee passed H.R.2824 by a voice vote last week. In response to tribal complaints, lawmakers included a "savings clause" that attempts to protect tribes that have tobacco tax agreements with states. But Van Norman said the language doesn't go far enough to protect tribal sovereignty.

Kildee said Indian Country advocates are working to kill the offensive language. He also said Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) -- whom he called "a great defender of sovereignty" -- has asked for a referral to the House Resources Committee.

Pombo chairs the Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues. So far, all of the work on the bill has been done by the Judiciary Committee.

"The House Judiciary Committee should know the Constitution, should know what federal laws are on the books -- those acts date back to 1790 -- they should know that," Kildee said.

From the tribal end, Van Norman said lobbyists want to bring the House Commerce Committee into negotiations because the bill redefines inter-state commerce to include Indian lands.

The Senate version of the bill, known as the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act, was passed in December. Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, were able to remove the language that would have abrogated tribal sovereign immunity.

But provisions related to state enforcement remain. Tribal advocates are worried these could be interpreted to apply not only to Indian-owned Internet businesses but to brick-and-mortar shops as well.

Supporters of the bill include anti-smoking groups, tobacco manufacturers, law enforcement and convenience store owners. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids believes it will prevent youth from smoking. American Indian and Alaska Native teens have the highest rate of tobacco use among all ethnic and racial groups.

This coalition makes it harder for tribes to press their views, Van Norman said. "It's a tougher situation now," he said. "No one wants to see kids smoking. We don't want to see people doing wrongful things against the American government."

"But we do want to preserve tribal sovereignty. We do need to preserve tribal sovereign immunity," he said.

Get the Bills:
Internet Tobacco Sales Enforcement Act (H.R.2824) | PACT Act (S.1177)

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids - http://www.tobaccofreekids.org

Related Stories:
Tobacco tax bill has broad group of supporters (2/2)
Tobacco tax bill still poses challenges for Indian Country (12/16)
Tribes left out of Internet and cigarette tax bills (11/19)

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