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Benjamin Grove

Ensign Aims to Keep Casinos From Native Hawaiians

20 July 2005

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., has blocked a historic bill that eventually would give native Hawaiians sovereign status.

Ensign is concerned the legislation could lead to native Hawaiians launching a vacationland gaming industry that could compete with Nevada casinos, much as Native Americans have done.

Ensign said he was working with the Justice Department, in consultation with bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to hammer out legislation that would make it clear that native Hawaiians could not sponsor gaming operations.

The bill already contains an anti-gaming provision. It states, "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize the Native Hawaiian governing entity to conduct gaming activities under the authority of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act."

But even that leaves a door open to potential gaming, Ensign said.

"The language is too loose," he said.

As part of his legislation, Ensign aims to draft language that would prevent any native Hawaiian group from obtaining land in another state with the intention of opening a casino. He cited the case of an Alaskan Native corporation that has eyed property for a casino near the Denver Airport.

Hawaii lawmakers and their aides said they do not object to Ensign tightening the language to clearly ban native Hawaiians from opening gaming operations.

"It's an easy problem to solve because we are all on the same page already," Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, said. He said Hawaiian politicians are united with native Hawaiian groups against gaming.

Hawaii is one of only two states with no legal forms of gambling, along with Utah. Republican Gov. Linda Lingle met with Ensign in his Capitol Hill office on Tuesday and re-iterated her state's stance on gaming. Lingle, a longtime opponent of gaming, said native Hawaiians had never approached her with their interest in gaming.

"He (Ensign) doesn't want gambling in Hawaii for his own reasons," she said after the meeting. "I don't want gambling in Hawaii for mine."

Lingle has been lobbying President Bush and Congress for the sovereign recognition legislation, and she and other Hawaiian officials were back on Capitol Hill this week to meet with key lawmakers in a final effort to drive the bill to the floor.

The bill was to be debated this week.

Ensign spokesman Jack Finn today said the language could be finalized -- and Ensign's hold removed -- as early as today.

Akaka spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said Akaka hoped that the bill could be on the floor for debate as early as today. The staffs in Akaka's office and Ensign's office have been in touch this week, she said.

Akaka earlier this week was taken aback that someone had placed a hold on the bill, fearing further delays, she said. A hold placed by a single senator can delay action on a bill.

"He wanted to find out who had issues and what those issues were," Dela Cruz said. "He wants to debate this bill on the floor."

Hawaii's four Democratic lawmakers and other elected leaders have long fought for the bill's passage.

Bill supporters argue that natives should be allowed to form their own governing body. Critics say the legislation could create two classes of people in Hawaii or even herald the beginning of a state secession movement.03