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Indian gaming up for review by Obama team
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Filed Under: National | Politics

President-elect Barack Obama could reverse some of the Bush administration's controversial gaming actions, a senior Bureau of Indian Affairs official said on Monday.

Paula Hart, a career employee at the BIA's Office of Indian Gaming Management, said the agency has already flagged one issue for the new president. It's a May 20, 2005, letter that brought about a shift in the way tribal-state compacts are reviewed.

"Right now, we're in the transition and everybody's been asking what's going to be pulled," Hart, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York, said on the opening day of the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

According to the letter, which was developed without tribal consultation, the BIA will not approve compacts that refer to gaming sites that are not yet held in trust. The shift was based on a new interpretation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that tribes have criticized as unlawful.

Hart doesn't know whether the new Obama administration will change the directive or even consider it. But she said it was the "first thing" career employees at the BIA flagged.

"This is one of the positions that we're going to raise to the next administration," Hart told conference attendees.

Another controversial Bush administration action may be harder to review, Hart said. It's the January 3, 2008, "guidance memorandum" that makes it more difficult for tribes to acquire land away from existing reservations.

As with the May 2005 letter, the policy was developed without tribal consultation. But since it's the subject of at least three lawsuits in the federal courts, Hart believes the agency in the new Obama administration will have to operate "within the confines of the litigation."

Jason Hanselman, an attorney who represents tribes with land and gaming issues, agreed the Obama team should review the May 2005 compact letter. He said it frustrates the ability of tribes and states to work together and find the best locations for casinos.

But he disagreed with Hart's view on the January 3 memo. He said the pending court cases shouldn't have an effect on the agenda of the new president.

"It's something the Obama administration could reverse within the first week of Obama coming into office," Hanselman said.

A third controversial change in gaming policy under the Bush administration just recently came into effect. It's the "Section 20" regulation that tells the BIA how to determine whether a site acquired after the passage of IGRA in 1988 can be used for a casino.

Since the regulation was already published in the Federal Register, Hart said it's nearly impossible for it to be reversed. The new Obama administration, however, could modify the rules with more tribal input.

Tribal leaders attending the conference expressed hope that change will come after Obama is inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. They said the Bush administration hindered Indian Country over the last eight years.

"We're always trying to move ahead but there's always new rules and regulations that you guys keep putting out," said Anthony Broncho, the secretary for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho.

Broncho said his tribe has been trying for more than 20 years to have land placed in trust and even proposed an off-reservation casino under former governor Dirk Kempthorne. But Kempthorne rejected it and he has carried his negative gaming views with him as Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

"The more things we are working on, we're getting stopped because of the secretary," said Broncho. He expressed hope that the situation might change with the new administration.

Eugene Caldwell, the secretary for the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin, agreed with the assessment. His tribe has filed a lawsuit to prevent Kempthorne from rejecting an off-reservation casino that has strong local support.

"You can't even meet with Kempthorne on gaming issues," said Caldwell.

Global Gaming Expo continues today with panels on labor unions and tribes, a review of the past 20 years of IGRA, the impacts of the economy on tribal casinos and the National Indian Gaming Commission. The conference concludes on Thursday.

Related Stories:
World's largest gaming conference in Vegas (11/17)
Bush administration finalizes probate reform rule (11/12)
Dirk Kempthorne to stay on board until January 20 (11/11)
St. Croix Band hopeful with Obama administration (11/11)
Big issues await Obama administration in DC (11/10)
Menominee Nation sues to halt casino review (11/10)
Jodi Rave: NCAI excited about Obama transition (11/10)
No mention of tribes on Obama transition website (11/7)
Ernie Stevens: Optimism and change in Washington (11/7)
Indian vote shows mixed results in key states (11/6)
Sen. Obama launches White House transition team (11/6)
Sen. Obama wins historic presidential election (11/5)

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