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Pombo schedules hearing on off-reservation gaming

A House Republican who has earned praise for supporting tribal rights will take on the controversial issue of off-reservation gaming at a hearing on Thursday.

Rep. Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, has embraced Indian gaming as a way for tribes to become self-sufficient. "This has meant new opportunities for jobs, housing, education, health care, and cultural preservation," he said last year.

But like a number of other key lawmakers, the California Republican has voiced concerns about tribes seeking casinos far away from existing reservations and even in other states. Pombo is planning to introduce a bill to restrict the spread of casinos to urban areas.

The exact contents of the legislation aren't known but a draft circulating in Indian Country would limit off-reservation casinos to no more than two "Indian Economic Opportunity Zones" per state. The Interior Department would be given authority to designate which areas qualify.

The bill is not set in stone, however, and the hearing on Thursday will help guide the effort. Pombo previously solicited input from a number of tribes and Indian organizations during hearings he held on the subject during the 108th Congress.

Additional testimony is expected as the 109th Congress gears up for action on a topic that has created conflicts among tribes, states, local communities and non-Indians. In addition to Pombo, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, is planning hearings.

"There's some who would argue off-reservation gaming benefits tribes," McCain said at the National Congress of American Indians winter session earlier this month. "This may be true for some tribes. But I think it's foolhardy to ignore the backlash that could and, in fact, is resulting from the expansion of gaming in areas never contemplated by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act."

When IGRA was passed in 1988, it contained a provision to limit off-reservation casinos. Tribes are not allowed to start gaming facilities on land taken into trust after October 17, 1988.

But the law contains numerous exceptions that tribes all over the nation have used to overcome the no-gaming prohibition. Newly-recognized tribes, tribes who were terminated and later restored and tribes with former reservations have gained approval to open casinos on land taken into trust after 1988.

Congress also has the authority to waive the prohibition, a practice that has generated significant controversy in California. Two previously landless tribes -- the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians and the Coast Miwok Tribe -- are moving forward with casino plans in urban areas that were not part of their former reservations or, some would argue, within their aboriginal territory.

Much of the opposition to these proposals has come from the non-Indian community. Local officials and residents fear negative impacts a casino might bring to their area.

But in recent months, a number of prominent tribal leaders and tribal organizations have jumped in to the debate. The California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) recently passed a resolution against the Lytton Band's casino in the Bay Area.

"I feel very hurt to try to stifle another tribe's effort," Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians said at a CNIGA conference this year. Nonetheless, negative attention prompted his tribe to go public with concerns about urban casinos that he said California voters never contemplated when they overwhelmingly approved Indian gaming in 2000.

So far, the two largest Indian organizations aren't taking sides. The National Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians haven't adopted policies for or against off-reservation gaming, and don't take positions on inter-tribal disputes.

"Some people speculated that there's politics setting around our position," NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. said earlier this month. "I just want to make sure everybody understands it's not about politics, it's about policy."

Still, Stevens said he recognizes the importance of the debate and its potential effect on the $18.5 billion tribal casino industry. So NIGA and NCAI are holding three forums -- including one next week in Washington, D.C., -- to allow tribes to express their views.

The witness list for Thursday's hearing has not been made public yet. The hearing takes place at 2pm.

Relevant Links:
Rep. Richard Pombo -
House Resources Committee -