Lawmakers show support for Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) addresses the National Indian Gaming Association on July 21, 2015. Photo from Twitter

NIGA hosts impressive slate of lawmakers in DC
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

The National Indian Gaming Association hosted a slew of lawmakers on Tuesday as the organization opened its legislative summit on Capitol Hill.

Speaker after speaker reaffirmed the inherent right of tribes to conduct gaming. They also stressed the importance of educating their colleagues in Congress and federal officials about the $28 billion industry.

“You should start every conversation about gaming by saying that gaming is not something the federal government authorized you to do,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) said. “It is your sovereign right and I don’t think people really understand that."

"If the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act went away tomorrow, you would still be able to conduct gaming," Heitkamp added. "We shouldn’t have to educate people on this issue but we do.”

Other lawmakers discussed the need to protect tribal sovereignty in matters ranging from labor practices to tax policy.

“My first priority is the protection of tribal sovereignty,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) told attendees. “Tribes have the right to negotiate things like Internet gaming. The revenue generated goes to help rebuild tribal infrastructure.”

In addition, lawmakers from both parties backed the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act. The House version, H.R.511, is scheduled for a markup this morning.

“I am a strong supporter of labor but sometimes there are fights that you have to fight with your friends and this is one of them,” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) said in endorsing the measure that exempts tribes and their casinos from the National Labor Relations Act. “I don’t understand the confusion.”

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn addresses the National Indian Gaming Association on July 21, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

The National Labor Relations Board has not taken a position the bill due its policy not to comment on pending legislation. But Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, endorsed its goals as a means to further tribal self-sufficiency.

Washburn also said taxation issues must be resolved in order to improve tribal economies.

“Our problems in Indian Country stem from poverty,” Washburn told NIGA. “If we’re serious about addressing these issues then we have to deal with the issue of dual taxation … because no one wants to be taxed twice. That may be the single barrier to economic development.”

Washburn praised President Barack Obama for visiting the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma last week. He said other federal agencies are taking their trust responsibilities more seriously thanks to direction from the White House.

“The entire federal government has a responsibility to tribes, not just the BIA,” Washburn said. “The president is starting to say that and that means something. The BIA has a lot on its shoulders but we’re starting to get help.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, addresses the National Indian Gaming Association on July 21, 2015. Photo from Twitter

NIGA's summit resumes this morning with presentations from more lawmakers. Nearly three dozen members were due to address the meeting over the course of the event, an impressive figure and a sign of the importance of the tribal industry.

“In many Indian communities, [gaming] has supported tribal services, created jobs, and decreased unemployment, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in his remarks that opened the summit. "That is why we must ensure the integrity of Indian gaming remains strong for future generations."

Barrasso is leading a hearing this afternoon on Indian gaming, the committee's first foray into the subject in the 114th Congress. He called attention to a recent Government Accountability Office report that described some of the initiatives at the National Indian Gaming Commission as ineffective.

"It will be a good opportunity to dive into these issues and examine how to continue protecting the integrity of Indian gaming," Barrasso said.

“I have always thought that the best ideas for tribes have come directly from Indian Country – and that is why I’ve always appreciated opportunities like this hearing," he added.

Today's hearing takes place immediately following a business meeting at 2:15pm in Room 216 of the Senate Hart Office Building. The room is much larger than the one used for the committee's regular hearings to accommodate a potentially bigger crowd.

The business meeting will not be webcast but an audio-only feed will be available at Capitol Hearings. The hearing itself will be webcast.

The markup on the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act at 10:45am will be webcast as well.

Committee Notices:
Markup: H.R. 511, "Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015" (July 22, 2015)
Business Meeting to consider S. 1704 and S. 1776 (July 22, 2015)
Oversight Hearing on "Safeguarding the Integrity of Indian Gaming" (July 22, 2015)

Government Accountability Office Report:
Regulation and Oversight by the Federal Government, States, and Tribes (June 3, 2015)

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