The Bush administration is working with Congress on proposals that would limit off-reservation gaming, a senior Interior Department official said on Wednesday.
Jim Cason, the department's associate deputy secretary, appeared on the C-SPAN program "Washington Journal" primarily to talk about the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit. But most of the questions, and criticism, during the 45-minute segment centered on the $19 billion Indian gaming industry and attempts by tribes to open casinos far away from existing reservations.
"Indians are setting up casinos everywhere," complained a caller from South Dakota.
Cason sought to downplay the controversy by saying that off-reservation gaming is a fairly new trend. Since 1988, when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, only three tribes have opened casinos on non-reservation lands, he noted.
"Of all the Indian casinos that have been approved, the vast majority of them are actually on Indian tribal lands," Cason told the caller.
But with more than 10 proposals pending before the Bureau of Indian Affairs and dozens more in the works, Cason said the department was concerned. "We definitely need some more clarity in the areas of expanding gaming off-reservation," he said.
"That will be one of the things we that we looking for -- to work with Congress
to be clear about what areas are permissible, or should be permissible, and try to get some more clarify from Congress on that," he added.
Key members of Congress have sounded alarms about the practice. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee have each held a series of hearings on off-reservation gaming. Another one, on the Senate side, will take place July 27.
"We have enough off-reservation casinos set up in America," Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate committee, said at a June 28 hearing. "You're going to see a backlash against Indian gaming because that was not the intent of the law," he said.
On the program, Cason gave no indication on where the department stands on the issue. But he rejected complaints from callers who argued that tribal casinos aren't well regulated.
"Are there abuses in the process?" he said. "It's possible. But as an overall standpoint, the economic development in Indian Country has been a good thing."
Cason said the National Indian Gaming Commission, in addition to the BIA, make sure the law is followed. He didn't mention, however, that tribal governments are the primary regulators of their
Since the Bush administration took charge in January 2001, the BIA has approved just one off-reservation casino. It never moved forward because the state governor didn't agree, as required by provisions in IGRA affecting off-reservation gaming.
But the BIA has allowed gaming on non-reservation lands under "exceptions" listed in Section 20 of the law. The approvals included an off-reservation casino for the Seneca Nation of New York and a casino for the United Auburn Indian Community in California, a previously landless tribe.
Since 2001, the Bush administration approved eight Section 20 exceptions, and since 1998, there have been at least 27 such approvals, according to a count by Indianz.Com that is based on Congressional testimony, NIGC documents and a General Accountability Office report on newly recognized tribes.
The July 27 hearing will deal with these exceptions. A bill being circulated by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the chairman of the House committee, would amend Section 20 to limit off-reservation casinos to two "zones" per state.
McCain hasn't advanced a particular proposal but said the growth of the industry requires scrutiny.
"If any of the witnesses today believe that we do not have that responsibility, then we have a respectful disagreement," he said at last month's hearing.
National Indian Gaming Commission - http://www.nigc.gov
Indian Gaming Association - http://www.indiangaming.org