Senate bill seeks to amend Indian gaming act

A Republican Senator last month introduced a bill to amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act despite facing long odds in changing the law.

Since it was passed in 1988, IGRA hasn't been amended in any significant way. Meanwhile, the tribal casino industry has grown into a $25 billion business.

Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana) hopes to stem that growth by making it harder for tribes to open casinos without the input of local communities. His bill, called the Common Sense Indian Gambling Reform Act, seeks to limit off-reservation gaming.

"Indian casino gambling has expanded significantly in the last decade, with many tribes locating casinos in communities to which they hold no historical ties," Vitter said in a February 28 statement. "This forum shopping is done strictly to enable tribes to obtain an economic advantage, and my bill includes provisions to protect local communities from being exploited by these activities."

Vitter didn't provide any statistics about the number of casinos that he says aren't located on historical Indian lands. But in the history of IGRA, only three tribes have won approval to open gaming facilities away from their existing reservations.

"However, there has sometimes been controversy and confusion over how the [Interior] Secretary will make the determinations, and media reports tend to hype every new proposal with little recognition of how rigorous and difficult the process is," Jackie Johnson, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said in Congressional testimony on February 27.

Under a new Bush administration policy, tribes will have an even harder time. In January, the Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected 11 casino proposals, saying the gaming sites were too far from existing reservations.

Still, the hard data hasn't stopped critics from trying to bar casinos on land taken into trust after 1988. Vitter's bill eliminates the two-part determination process of IGRA, so tribes with existing reservations will no longer be able to seek casinos on newly acquired lands unless those lands are contiguous to the reservation.

But tribes without existing reservations are also affected by the bill. If it passes, newly recognized tribes and restored tribes will have to demonstrate geographic, social, and historical ties to the land they want in trust -- a requirement not present in existing law.

And before the land is acquired in trust, the BIA will have to consult local communities, conduct an economic impact study of businesses within a 60-mile radius and obtain the approval of the affected state's governor and the state's legislative body.

Another category of tribes -- those with land claims -- will no longer be able to use IGRA to open casinos on settlement lands. These tribes will have to follow the same requirements as newly recognized tribes and restored tribes.

A final category of tribes -- those in Oklahoma -- aren't affected at all by the bill. But Vitter has included a provision that requires tribes to obtain BIA approval if they want the open casinos on land already in trust.

A handful of Oklahoma tribes -- most notably the Chickasaw Nation -- have opened casinos in land taken into trust after 1988. On their land-into-trust applications, the tribes say they don't plan to use the land for gaming.

But if they change their minds, Vitter's bill requires tribes to submit an environmental impact statement for federal approval.

The bill, S.2676, was referred to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Since Democrats took over Congress in January 2007, the committee has shied from gaming and instead has focused on health, education, budget and other Indian issues.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the committee chairman, plans to hold a general oversight hearing on the National Indian Gaming Commission, an aide said last week at NCAI's winter session in Washington.

Get the Bill:
Common Sense Indian Gambling Reform Act (S.2676)

Off-Reservation Gaming Policy:
Guidance on taking off-reservation land into trust for gaming purposes (January 3, 2008)

Related Stories:
How far is too far for off-reservation land? (2/28)
BIA starts new year with off-reservation gaming policy (1/7)
Rejected tribes want casinos too far from reservations