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House committee takes up off-reservation gaming

The leader of the House Resources Committee said on Thursday he would move forward with a bill to restrict off-reservation gaming as tribal leaders and local government officials called on Congress to curb the practice.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California) welcomed comments, both positive and negative, on the draft bill he has introduced. He said he was worried that growing controversy over "reservation shopping" will end up hurting tribal sovereignty.

"The purpose of this was not to take an economic opportunity away from anybody but we need to have some type of control over what is happening right now," Pombo said.

All but two of the witnesses at the lengthy hearing, which was interrupted by a series of House votes, supported Pombo's goals, although the tribal officials voiced concerns about sovereignty while the two local government representatives sought more input in the federal approval process.

"The ever increasing proposals to create off-reservation gaming threaten to undermine the fundamental purposes of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act," said Kevin Leecy, the chairman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa from Minnesota. He said his tribe's on-reservation casino, while modest, is creating jobs and economic opportunity that would be threatened by off-reservation facilities.

Approaching the issue from a different angle was Richard Forster, the chairman of the Amador County, California, Board of Supervisors. He said local officials have little to no say over land-into-trust requests or compact negotiations with the state.

"In our system of government, you're looking for checks and balances,' Forster told the committee. "I think we're missing some of those checks and balances in the system right now."

But Lori Jaimes, chairwoman of the Greenville Rancheria of Maidu Indians in California, testified that the proposed bill would hurt her tribe, whose recognition was restored after being terminated illegally. She said local communities would be given unprecedented authority over tribal development.

"Restored tribes are generally landless and seeking their first and likely only chance to avail themselves of governmental gaming under IGRA," she said. "States and local governments simply should not have veto power over Indian self-determination and economic development."

Democrats on the committee also had concerns. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Michigan) said any attempt to amend gaming may end up hurting tribal interests even if tribes support the goals of the legislation.

"I do worry about opening up IGRA because there are many people who are not that fond of Indian gaming even though the Cabazon decision guaranteed it under the treaties and the constitution of the United States," he said. Cabazon was the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed tribal rights to conduct gaming without state interference.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) said local governments seek more power in the process so they can make decisions affecting tribes go their way. He also didn't think off-reservation gaming is "a huge problem."

"I think the off-reservation issue is being overblown in the media and Congress is reacting to that," he said.

Republican members, on the other hand, did think there is genuine controversy. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico) cited a tribe's attempt to open casino in his district despite being located more than 300 miles away.

"As the stakes grow higher and higher in this game, it opens the door larger for bad reasons to be used" to justify off-reservation casinos, he said.

Kurt Luger, the executive director of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association, testified in strong support of limiting gaming to reservations or, in the alternative, to areas where tribes maintain historical and contemporary ties and where local communities are in support. He said tribes seeking casinos hundreds of miles away from their reservations don't meet either test.

"We clearly see that there are outside non-Indian developers that are part of this story and pushing this agenda in many cases," Luger testified.

Tim Martin, the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, centered his criticism on tribes seeking to jump across state lines to open casinos in more lucrative areas. USET recently passed a resolution against out-of-state tribal proposals but Martin said the organization has not taken a position on off-reservation gaming by in-state tribes.

Two New York tribes that belong to USET want to open casinos in the Catskills, hundreds of miles from their reservations. Another USET tribe opened an off-reservation casino in connection with a land claim.

The National Indian Gaming Association doesn't have a policy for or against off-reservation gaming either, said Mark Van Norman, the group's executive director. But he said tribes, through a joint effort of NIGA and the National Congress of American Indians, will formulate their positions through three forums planned on the issue in the coming months. He said NIGA plans to report back to Congress on the discussions.