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BIA plans four meetings for Section 20 regulations

Amid Congressional efforts to curb off-reservation casinos, the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Monday announced a series of meetings on new land-into-trust regulations.

Setting an aggressive timetable, the BIA plans to hold four meetings throughout Indian Country in the coming month. The effort begins this Thursday on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut and ends on April 20 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The goal is to take input on a draft proposal the BIA released in January. The agency, for the first time since the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, is developing standards for the acquisition of lands to be used for gaming.

Lands acquired after 1988 generally can't be used for casinos. But Section 20 of IGRA contains four exceptions that apply to newly recognized tribes, restored tribes, tribes in Oklahoma with former reservations and tribes with a land claim settlement.

For tribes who cannot meet the exceptions, Section 20 provides an alternative. Under the two-part determination process, a tribe may open a casino on newly acquired lands with the approval of the BIA and the concurrence of the state governor.

According to widely publicized statistics, only three tribes have opened casinos on off-reservation land under the two-part determination process. But a far greater number -- at least 30, based on independent counts and BIA officials -- are gaming on land taken into trust under the four Section 20 exceptions.

Coupled with dozens of proposals -- both rumored and actual -- to open casinos on land far away from existing reservations, the issue has generated controversy in recent years. Key members of Congress have introduced bills to gut Section 20 by eliminating most of the exceptions and the two-part determination process.

The BIA's proposal effectively maintains the status quo. Rather than break new ground, it mainly codifies existing procedures and guidelines for the acquisition of new lands for gaming.

But neither the BIA nor the bills that have been introduced in the House and the Senate address a situation that has arisen in Oklahoma. A small number of tribes in the northeastern part of the state have been able to expand their gaming empires by acquiring new lands by skipping the Section 20 process altogether.

Yet other tribes in the state, including small tribes in eastern Oklahoma and larger tribes in western Oklahoma, have run into roadblocks when they try to acquire land for gaming and non-gaming purposes. Tribes across the nation report similar delays, blaming it on the cloud hanging over off-reservation casinos.

"My mother tried to put grazing land into trust," Kurt Luger, the executive director of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association, said at a state governors' conference. "It took her 17 years."

With pressure mounting in Congress -- the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is set to vote on a bill to alter Section 20 tomorrow -- and among the public, the BIA hopes it won't take as long to establish the new regulations. George Skibine, the director of the Office of Indian Gaming Management, is the lead on the project and plans to finalize the proposal by late summer.

For two-part determinations, the notable parts of Skibine's proposal would:
� require consultation of local governments within a 10-mile radius of the proposed off-reservation casino.
� require consultation of nearby tribes within 50 miles of the proposed off-reservation casino.
� require tribes to submit financial projections, consulting agreements and financial agreements, and require tribes to disclose possible adverse impacts and plans to address those impacts.
� create a 60-day comment period, with possible extensions, to consult with local governments, state officials and nearby tribes

For the exceptions, the notable parts of the proposal would:
� define "contiguous" as "land(s) sharing a common boundary, or adjoining with nothing intervening. However, parcels of land are contiguous even if separated by roads, railroads, other rights of way, or streams." This definition applies mainly to the Oklahoma former reservation exception.
� require tribes to obtain Congressional approval for a land claim settlement and obtain state or federal court approval of the settlement before gaming on land acquired through the settlement.
� require newly recognized tribes to stay within their service area for an off-reservation casino. If no service area is defined, the tribe must demonstrate "significant historical and cultural ties" to the land being sought for an off-reservation casino.
� require restored tribes to obtain an act of Congress to acquire restored land, or demonstrate a "modern connection" to the land being sought for an off-reservation casino. Several criteria are laid out to determine the modern connection.

In addition to the four meetings, the BIA is accepting written comments until April 20. Sometime after that, the proposal will be published in the Federal Register and will be open for additional comments.

No further meetings, however, are being planned, according to the BIA. Along with skipping Oklahoma altogether, the BIA doesn't plan on going to the Rocky Mountain region or to the Great Plains, the location of the largest Indian land base.

The schedule is as follows:
Thursday, March 30: 9:00 a.m. � 12:00 p.m.
Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort, 1 Mohegan Sun Blvd., Uncasville, Conn.

Wednesday, April 5: 2:00 p.m. � 5:00 p.m.
Albuquerque Convention Center, San Miguel Rm. 330 Tijeras N.W., Albuquerque, N.M.

Tuesday, April 18: 9:00 a.m. � 12:00 p.m.
Radisson Hotel Sacramento, 500 Leisure Lane, Sacramento, Calif.

Thursday, April 20: 9:00 a.m. � 12:00 p.m.
Crown Plaza, 2200 Freeway Blvd., Minneapolis, Minn.

Press Release:
DOI to Hold Consultation Meetings on Proposed IGRA Section 20 Regulations (March 27, 2006)

Draft BIA Regulations:
Gaming on Lands Acquired After October 17, 1998

Relevant Documents:
Kevin Gover Testimony | Aurene Martin Testimony | Title 25 CFR Part 151 Land-into-Trust Process | Section 20 of IGRA | GAO Report

Pombo IGRA Bill:
To amend section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to restrict off-reservation gaming (H.R.4893)

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

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -
NIGC Indian Land Determinations -
National Indian Gaming Association -