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Tribes speak out against McCain's gaming bill

Tribal leaders plan to send a letter to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to formalize their opposition to a proposed overhaul of the $20 billion tribal casino industry.

At a meeting organized by the National Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians, tribal leaders said a bill introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, threatens their rights. They criticized provisions that would limit off-reservation gaming, impose additional bureaucratic rules on casinos and subject tribes to reviews of their daily business activities.

"Sovereignty is an inherent right of Indian tribes, and cannot be compromised without compromising our very existence as Indian people," Stanley Crooks, chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Minnesota tribe that hosted the meeting on Tuesday.

Ernie Stevens, the chairman of NIGA, said the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 doesn't need to be amended. He called S.2078, the bill introduced by McCain last November, "a disappointing reminder that some people think we've gained too much ground."

"Who else in American society is forced to defend their right to be successful?" Stevens said.

Despite the opposition coming from Indian Country, McCain isn't likely to hold back his proposal. At a business committee meeting next Wednesday, he plans to call a vote on his amendments to IGRA regardless of what tribes think.

"Any legislation that's 18 years old clearly needs a review," McCain said at a March 8 hearing. "Second of all, any operation that started from half a billion dollars to $20 billion a year, and continuing to go up, obviously needs to be scrutinized and looked at. Things have changed since 1988."

At the hearing, McCain indicated he was willing to accept compromise on one section of the bill that would give the National Indian Gaming Commission more power to review all gaming and gaming-related contracts. NIGC Chairman Phil Hogen and tribal leaders say the language, as currently drafted, would hinder tribes as they go about their daily business.

"Of the multitude of contracts tribal gaming operations enter into for their day-to-day operations, only a small minority are directly related to the conduct of the gaming activity," Hogen said,warning of a "bureaucratic bottleneck" that could be created by passage of the bill.

But McCain wasn't budging on another section of the measure that would ensure the NIGC has the authority to regulate Class III gaming. A federal judge ruled that IGRA left that role to tribes and states, through the compacting process, but McCain disagrees with the decision.

And McCain hasn't swayed from his view that off-reservation casino proposals have created a "backlash" against Indian gaming. His bill would make it harder for tribes to engage in gaming on land taken into trust after 1988, the year IGRA was first passed.

The disconnect between McCain, a longtime advocate for tribal sovereignty, and Indian Country has grown ever since he took over the Indian Affairs Committee in January 2005. Of the nearly 30 hearings he has held in Washington since February 2005, half of them have dealt with the Jack Abramoff scandal, gaming and the closely tied federal recognition and land-into-trust processes, topics that have painted tribes in a negative light.

The rift was highlighted at the March 8 hearing, when a tribal leader questioned McCain's agenda. Ron His Horse Is Thunder, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said the bill was motivated by negative press coverage, anti-Indian groups and the fallout from the Abramoff scandal, comments that brought a rebuke by McCain.

"We're too far apart in our views of what this committee is trying to do in the 20-some years I've been involved on behalf of Native Americans," McCain said. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman of the committee, said he agreed with McCain's sentiments.

Since IGRA was passed in 1988, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the inherent right of tribes to engage in gaming, there have been no major amendments to the law. In recent years, state governments have lobbied against provisions that would prevent them from taking a share in gaming revenues and limit their regulation of on-reservation activities.

Tribes have fought certain changes as well, citing threats to their sovereignty and economies. The conflicting views have made it extremely difficult for Congress to enact any changes to IGRA.

By making gaming a top priority of the committee, McCain hopes this year will be different. He has cited an obligation to protect non-Indians who gamble at tribal casinos, controversy over off-reservation gaming and the growth of the industry in his campaign to overhaul IGRA.

McCain IGRA Bill:
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act Amendments of 2005 (S.2078)

Relevant Documents:
McCain Floor Statement (November 18, 2005)

Relevant Links:
National Indian Gaming Commission -
National Indian Gaming Association -
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -
Sen. John McCain - http://mccain.senate/gov