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Indian-gaming regulator fights tribe consultation bill

18 April 2008

By Tony Batt

WASHINGTON, DC -- The chief federal regulator of Indian gaming, amid complaints that his agency is overreaching, on Thursday urged Congress not to pass legislation requiring more consultation with tribes.

Phil Hogen, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that tribes often don't consider consultation adequate unless federal regulators agree with them.

Tribal gaming officials fired back, saying Hogen and his agency are pursuing a "top-down Washington approach to regulation" that ignores tribal sovereignty.

The Senate hearing followed last week's hearing in the House on a bill by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., that would require "regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration" with tribal officials in development of federal policies.

"I think the proposed act of Congress that is the House bill would do a disservice to us, the regulators who have a job to do," Hogen said.

Rahall proposed the bill after the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Jan. 3 announced a crackdown on "off-reservation gambling," in which tribes purchase real estate not located on their native land to build casinos.

Rahall also cited last year's decision by the National Indian Gaming Commission to redefine Class II, or non-casino gambling operations, such as tribal bingo. The new definition would classify electronic bingo machines as Class III gaming, which would require them to be regulated like casinos and "negatively impact the revenues of Indian tribes."

Hogen appeared last week before the House Resources Committee, which Rahall chairs, to testify against the bill.

On Thursday, Hogen said his agency already has a consultation policy and the debate over the new Class II gambling definition has gone on too long.

"The thing is, I've got to get this done," Hogen said. "I mean, I've been at it now for more than five years. It's time to draw this bright line so the industry, the manufacturers, the tribes and the states know what's going on.

"Right now, there's confusion," he said. "That's not good for the industry and if and when it appears that there's a loss of integrity in the system, then the goose that laid the golden egg will be at risk. I don't want to be responsible for that."

Indian gaming has exploded into a $26 billion industry with 416 gambling operations run by 230 tribes in 28 states.

Hogen's agency has 104 employees to oversee tribal gaming that does not include casinos which are regulated by state-tribal compacts.

Although he said he has enough employees to do the job, Hogen said the Rahall bill probably would require more federal regulators because of the lawsuits that would likely ensue.

Four representatives of gambling tribes, including J.R. Matthews, vice chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Quapaw, Okla., said the National Indian Gaming Commission does not accommodate tribal concerns.

"Instead, the NIGC has a pre-determined decision that has already been made, and they tell us they are for change, but they don't listen to us," Matthews said.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, did not say if he plans to introduce a bill similar to Rahall's.

But Dorgan and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., admonished Hogen that he must communicate with tribes.

"It's your job to communicate ... and it's your job to tell people what you're doing," Tester told Hogen.