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Lobbying reform, gaming high on Congressional agenda

Lobbying reform and the $19 billion Indian gaming industry will be hot topics as members of Congress return to work, tribal advocates said last week.

During a panel discussion at the Western Indian Gaming Conference in Palm Springs, participants said the Jack Abramoff scandal is sure to lead to changes in lobbying practices. They also said the expansion of tribal casinos could lead to some significant amendments to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

"We are definitely going to see a busy schedule," said Mark Van Norman, the executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association.

Lobbying reform has been the single biggest issue so far, with members of both political parties vowing to take action. Tom Rodgers, a Washington lobbyist, said tribes should get involved to get some favorable provisions inserted into the proposals.

"Indian Country should call for a best practices institute," he said, to serve as a clearinghouse for information about the legal and lobbying profession in the nation's capitol.

"For tribes that do not have the time and the resources, they could have a protocol and a process so we don't get scammed again," he said, referring to the Abramoff scandal in which some tribes were defrauded out of millions under illegal payback schemes.

In the area of gaming, two major proposals have surfaced. The first is the Department of Justice's Johnson Act proposal that will change how Class II games are defined by limiting the types of games tribes can offer without a tribal-state compact.

The amendments are highly controversial because the courts have ruled in favor of tribal interests in several cases. "We thought we had pretty significant clarity on this issue," said John Harte, a lobbyist, who urged tribes to maintain pressure on the Bush administration and Congress.

The second proposal is a bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, to overhaul IGRA. The measure would affect almost every aspect of the industry, from contracts to regulation to lands eligible for casinos.

John Tahsuda, an aide on the committee, said gaming remains one of McCain's top priorities. "After 17 years, the gaming act needs to be updated," Tahsuda said.

One controversial provision would overturn a court victory won by the Colorado River Indian Tribes of Arizona by giving the National Indian Gaming Commission the authority to regulate Class III gaming. Last fall, a federal judge ruled that NIGC lacked the power to issue minimum internal control standards, also known as MICS, a decision that McCain has criticized.

The case is currently being appealed, said Phil Hogen, the chairman of the NIGC, during a separate discussion with tribal leaders at the conference.

Another provision of the bill seeks to limit where tribes can open new casinos. It bars gaming on out-of-state lands, changes the standards for land-into-trust applications, removes procedures that help landless, restored and newly recognized tribes, and eliminates the process for off-reservation casinos. McCain plans to hold additional hearings on the subject in the coming months, Tahsuda said.

Van Norman acknowledged that tribes have "mixed views" on off-reservation gaming proposals. But he said McCain's act goes too far and that the best place for reform should occur within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which plans to issue new regulations for land-into-trust applications

"We really don't want to open up the act on this issue," Van Norman said.

No one on the panel said whether they believed the gaming bills would eventually become law. Attempts to amend IGRA have failed in recent years, due to opposition from tribes and states.

One gaming bill, however, has cleared the Senate and is due to be considered in the House. S.1295, the National Indian Gaming Commission Accountability Act, would increase the agency's budget to deal with the expansion of the industry. Hogen said the NIGC supports the measure.

The lobbying bills have a far greater chance of success due to the climate in Washington. The Senate has already passed S.1312, the Reducing Conflicts of Interests in the Representation of Indian Tribes Act, to bar ex-Interior Department employees who represent tribes from lobbying their colleagues for one year.

Gaming Bills:
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act Amendments of 2005 (S.2078) | National Indian Gaming Commission Accountability Act of 2005 (S.1295)

Lobbying Reform Bills:
Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2005 (S.2128) | Reducing Conflicts of Interests in the Representation of Indian Tribes Act of 2005 (S.1312)

Relevant Links:
National Indian Gaming Commission -
National Indian Gaming Association -