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Tony Batt

Bill Troubles Casino Lobbyists

10 November 2005

WASHINGTON, DC -- Indian casino lobbyists on Wednesday expressed concern about a bill that would prohibit tribes from crossing state borders to purchase land for their gambling businesses.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who is chairman of the House Resources Committee, introduced the bill to reduce off-reservation gambling, or reservation shopping -- a controversial trend among tribes seeking more lucrative markets for their casinos.

"(Off-reservation gambling) has severely damaged the public image of Indian gaming, causing the public focus to shift away from the good things that gaming has done for tribes," Pombo said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is considering similar legislation in the Senate.

Tribes are divided on off-reservation gambling, according to Deron Marquez, chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which operates a casino near Highland, Calif.

"Often the lands sought for acquisition are within the ancestral homelands of other tribes, leading to enormous tensions between the tribes," Marquez told the committee.

Cheryle Kennedy, chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, said plans by two neighboring tribes to open off-reservation casinos near Portland, Ore., could have a "devastating" effect on her tribe, which operates the state's largest and most profitable casino.

But Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association -- the chief lobbying arm for tribal casinos -- said the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 should not be amended to curtail off-reservation gambling.

Tribal gambling officials are reluctant to tinker with the act, which has allowed their industry to mushroom from $500 million in gross revenues in 1988 to $19.4 billion last year.

"(IGRA) should remain untouched," Stevens told the committee.

Stevens noted only three off-reservation casino projects have opened since the act was passed. Congress has approved a tribal land claim for a fourth casino in New York.

Stevens urged Pombo to allow the Department of Interior to finish work on regulations to control off-reservation gambling.

Mark Van Norman, the Indian gaming association's executive director, complained about a provision in Pombo's bill that would require tribes to negotiate with local governments before opening casinos.

"We feel that the state can adequately represent the local governments because the state is the sovereign and the local governments are subdivisions," Van Norman said.

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said the 1988 law requires tribes to consult with local officials within a 10-mile radius of an Indian casino. Gibbons suggested the 10-mile radius should be extended to the borders of the state where the casino is located.

Van Norman said such an extension would be excessive.

"As a practical matter, the (interior) secretary has never moved forward (with an Indian casino) where there was not support of the local government," Van Norman said.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., said Pombo's bill would give federal, state and local officials veto power over Indian gambling.

Kind said many tribes have been displaced and should not be barred from pursuing land once owned by their ancestors.

Van Norman agreed, comparing the removal of tribes in the 19th century from their native lands to "ethnic cleansing."