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Senate panel delves into gaming again for 2006

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee resumes its focus on the $19 billion tribal gaming industry next week with a hearing on off-reservation casinos.

In his first year as chairman of the committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) held five gaming and gaming-related hearings in 2005. He introduced a bill to overhaul the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a landmark law that has survived major changes since its passage in 1988.

"After 17 years, the gaming act needs to be updated," John Tahsuda, an aide to McCain on the committee, told tribal leaders at the Western Indian Gaming Conference earlier this month.

Under McCain's IGRA proposal, the review and approval process for off-reservation would change dramatically. Tribes would be subject to new standards for land-into-trust applications and would no longer be able to utilize some of the exceptions contained in the current law.

"Exploitation of these exceptions, not anticipated at the time IGRA was enacted, has led to a burgeoning practice by unscrupulous developers seeking to profit off Indian tribes desperate for economic development," McCain said when he introduced the bill on November 18, 2005.

McCain's bill would restrict the ability of landless tribes, newly recognized tribes and restored tribes to acquire new lands. The tribes would have to demonstrate "significant ties" to the land they hope to place in trust and use for gaming. The Interior Department would have to determine that the tribe has "temporal, cultural, and geographic nexus" to the land in question.

The measure also eliminates the exception for land claims. McCain said tribes will still be able to reclaim ancestral lands so long as the lands are located in the state "where the tribe has or had its last reservation." Otherwise, tribes would be outright barred from crossing state lines to open casinos.

Finally, the bill eliminates the "two-part determination" process for off-reservation casinos. Although only three tribes have succeeded in getting federal and state approval for such proposals since 1988, McCain said the process has led to "troublesome" and "ill-advised" deals.

So far, the amendments have been met with resistance in Indian Country. Although tribes are split on the issue of off-reservation gaming, they fear changes to IGRA would be detrimental to their long-term interests.

"Some folks think it's an avenue for further economic development," Mark Van Norman, the executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, said at the conference. "Other folks feel it's an impact for tribes with existing gaming."

"Even out of those diverse views, we've got very good agreement among the tribes that we really don't want to open up the act on this issue," he added.

Since taking control more than four years ago, the Bush administration has not shied from approving gaming-related land acquisitions for landless, restored and newly recognized tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved 15 such proposals, according to officials, although many more are pending.

At the same time, the administration pulled regulations to govern the land-into-trust process and the two-part determination process. George Skibine, the BIA official in charge of gaming, said he is redrafting the latter set of regulations in hopes of providing more clarity on the matter.

"I am in the process of trying to revive these regulations, which I've always thought should have been published but the new administration took exception to the work that was done in the previous administration," he said at a gaming conference last fall.

Van Norman said this regulatory framework, not changes to IGRA, provided the best solution. "You must consult with the state, you must consult with the local government, you must consult with nearby tribes and their interests into account," he said in describing the process.

As for land claims, the Interior Department has already taken the position that Congress must ratify any settlements. McCain's bill, if it becomes law, would make that policy more explicit.

Next week's hearing takes place February 1 at 9:30am. A witness list has not been made public but is expected to include BIA and tribal representatives.

April 27, 2005, Hearing on Regulation of Indian Gaming:
Witness List/Testimony | Video

May 18, 2005, Hearing on Taking Land into Trust:
Witness List/Testimony | Video

June 28, 2005, Hearing on Regulation of Indian Gaming:
Witness List/Testimony | Video

July 27, 2005, Hearing on IGRA exceptions and off-reservation gaming:
Witness List/Testimony | Video

September 21, 2005, Hearing on Regulation of Class III Gaming:
Witness List/Testimony

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -
NIGC Indian Land Determinations -