Advertise:   712.224.5420

Bush officials worried about off-reservation gaming

Off-reservation casinos may not be in the best interests of the $18.5 billion and growing tribal gaming industry, a Bureau of Indian Affairs official said this week.

Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton and her aides haven't developed a policy for or against off-reservation gaming since taking office in January 2001. But George Skibine, a career employee who is the BIA's acting deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development, said that officials are viewing such proposals with a cautious eye.

"The department does have serious concerns about the acquisition of far-flung lands for tribes -- essentially reservation shopping," Skibine told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

State officials, some members of Congress and non-Indians also have voiced objections to tribes seeking lands far away from reservations and even in other states. They often say tribes have no rights to the land or that local opposition and social concerns outweigh the potential economic benefits of an off-reservation casino.

Even Indian Country advocates are worried that the proposals will lead to a backlash against Indian gaming, which has helped to raise standards of living for many tribes. "I keep hearing bitter complaints from people who live near Indian tribes or live near land they hear is being taken into trust solely for the purpose of gaming," said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate committee.

According to Skibine, there is nothing in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act or the Indian Reorganization Act to outright bar these types of proposals. In most cases, tribes must undergo a "rigorous review" process that requires extensive consultation with state and local communities, he said.

But the department is definitely worried about the impact of off-reservation gaming on other tribes, Skibine said. "In some states, it tends to destabilize what is the status quo where tribes are gaming on the reservation," he testified.

"Essentially, we're not sure this is in the best interests of Indian gaming overall," he testified.

Tribal leaders and their advocates have advanced a similar view. Not only do they argue that off-reservation gaming hurts on-reservation casinos, they say it erodes tribal-state relations and leads to unreasonable demands on tribes.

Off-reservation casino "offers become the new baseline upon which the State will seek concessions from the in-state tribes when negotiating gaming compact renewals, tax compacts, and local community jurisdictional agreements," said Tim Martin, the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, said in written testimony. USET has passed resolutions against tribes seeking to open casinos across state lines or in areas to which they have no ancestral connection.

This attitude extends to other gaming issues, others point out. Once one tribe agrees to a high revenue-sharing rate in a compact, for example, others are often pressured to meet the standard, a trend seen in California and Minnesota, among other states.

"The state's opening position is 25 percent," observed Kevin Gover, the BIA's former assistant secretary who is now a University of Arizona professor and works for tribes as a consultant.

So far, the Bush administration has sent mixed messages in the debate. Since 2001, Interior Secretary Gale Norton has approved two off-reservation casinos despite objections from other tribes. In both cases, the deals failed because the state governor didn't agree, a requirement of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

In the one instance where the administration outright rejected a gaming deal for an off-reservation casino, officials didn't cite tribal objections. Instead, they said a proposed compact subjected the Jena Band of Choctaws in Louisiana to an illegal "tax" not permitted by IGRA.

In another case, Norton allowed the Seneca Nation in New York to open an off-reservation through a land claim settlement. Under IGRA, she neither approved or rejected the deal but sent a letter to Gov. George Pataki (R) and the tribe frowning upon provisions that impacted the rights of other tribes.

She did the same for gaming compacts in Wisconsin that contain so-called "no compete" provisions seeking to limit expansion of gaming by other tribes, including at least one who is proposing an off-reservation casino. The compacts are the subject of an ongoing legal battle in the state courts.

Relevant Documents:
Written Testimony: Oversight Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Taking Lands into Trust (May 18, 2005) | Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi Testimony (May 18, 2005)