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Pombo continues hearings on off-reservation gaming

The House Resources Committee held its second hearing on the controversial subject of off-reservation gaming last week,drawing views on both sides of the heated debate.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the chairman of the committee, is holding the hearings to take comments on a discussion bill he drafted that would limit off-reservation casinos. He said he has received "excellent analysis" on the proposal so far.

"It has also resulted in a tremendous amount of unsolicited input from tribes, local leaders and private citizens across the nation," Pombo said of the measure.

At issue during Wednesday's hearing is the bill's potential effect on tribes who are seeking to build casinos across state lines. Proposals are pending in at least a dozen states, from New York to Colorado to California.

Leaders and supporters of three tribes pleaded with Pombo not to do anything to hurt their prospects of opening casinos in other states. They said the current process for acquiring off-reservation land for gaming is not broken.

"Indian gaming is not out of control," said Charles D. Enyart, the chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, which is eyeing up to nine sites in Ohio for gaming.

William Blind, the vice chairman of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, said Pombo's bill was a reaction to the "perceived problem" involving out-of-state gaming proposals. He noted that no tribe has ever been given approval to open a casino in another state since the passage of Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988.

"I say that it is a perceived problem since in 17 years, it has never occurred," testified Blind, whose tribe is seeking land in Colorado for a casino. "There has never been a single case of land being taken into trust under this rule."

But critics of "reservation shopping" called on Congress to act before approval is ever given. They said tribes are making dubious claims on land to which they have no ancestral, geographic, historic or cultural connection.

"There's been an increase in proposals to create off-reservation gaming in extra-legal ways, seriously threatening the purposes of this act," said Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Illinois), whose state is being looked by the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas and the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, whose vice president Wade Blackdeer testified at the hearing.

Cynthia J. Abrams, a member of the Seneca Nation of New York and a reverend of the United Methodist Church, said the church respects tribal sovereignty but is categorically opposed to gaming. She said off-reservation casino proposals are a sign that Indian people have lost sight of themselves and their fellow tribes.

"We believe that off-reservation casinos are having a negative effect on inter-tribal relations," she told the committee, "and between tribal and community relations." They are also fostering an "anti-sovereignty climate" in the country, he said.

Pombo said he drafted his bill to take control of the situation before it gets out of hand. He said he is particularly concerned about out-of-state casino proposals because they appear to have generated the most opposition.

As drafted, the legislation would limit off-reservation casinos to two Indian Economic Opportunity Zones" per state. The Interior Department would be allowed authority to designate the areas.

To accomplish this goal, the bill amends Section 20 of IGRA, the section that sets the circumstances for which off-reservation gaming is allowed. As a general rule, off-reservation gaming is prohibited unless the state and local communities where it is proposed agree under a process known as a two-part determination.

Since 1988, only three tribes have successfully completed this process and at least seven more have been rejected, either by Interior or by the state involved. Eight more applications are pending in California, New York, Wisconsin and Michigan.

But there are exceptions to the rule, and tribes have sought to take advantage of them. Newly recognized tribes and tribes whose recognition has been restored by Congress are eligible to acquire lands for gaming without going through the two-part process. In these cases, the tribes never had a previous reservation, or the reservation had been terminated.

Tribes with existing reservations can seek an exception in connection with a land claim. The Seneca Nation of New York was able to open two off-reservation casinos under a deal with the state that had to be approved by Congress.

Tribes can also ask Congress for special legislation to authorize an off-reservation casino, although this route is a difficult one. A California tribe was able to acquire land for a casino in the Bay Area through a Congressional rider that is now being examined for possible modification.

Finally, some tribes in Oklahoma have been able to open casinos on land not immediately connected to their former reservations. The Interior Department's Inspector General will be releasing a report that cites at least 10 instances in which a tribe, or tribes, skipped the IGRA process.

Pombo isn't the only leader in Congress taking up off-reservation gaming. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, held a hearing on the subject in March and is planning additional hearings.

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