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IGRA amendments up for critical committee vote

Update: The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, by a voice vote adopted S.2078, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act Amendments.

The committee debated three amendments. Two were approved and one was denied.

The first imposes a cut-off date of April 15 for two-part determination applications. If he sees a "flood" of applications within the next two weeks, Sen. John McCain said he would change the date to March 29. The amendment was approved by a voice vote.

The second amendment would provide a "fix" to the Seminole Supreme Court decision. Sen Inouye (D-Hawaii) introduced language that would allow tribes to go to court to offer Class III gaming in a state where it is legal if the state refused to respond within 180 days. The amendment was defeated by a roll call vote of 6-6. McCain opposed the amendment.

The third amendment requires tribes to disclose their gaming revenues to their members. It was offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and it passed by a voice vote after he agreed to limit disclosure to tribal members and not to the public at large.

With his eye on the White House in 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) faces a key vote today as his proposal to overhaul the $20 billion Indian gaming industry goes before a committee vote.

McCain has made gaming a priority since he became chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in January 2005. Of the nearly 30 hearings he has held in Washington, half of them have dealt with gaming and gaming-related issues.

Coming from a state with nearly two dozen tribes, most of whom are engaged in gaming, McCain has long been known as an advocate for tribal rights. But his campaign to amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, a bill he originally sponsored, has run into criticism in Indian Country.

By giving greater powers to federal regulators and restricting the ability to acquire trust lands, tribal leaders fear losing the benefits Indian gaming has brought to their communities. In addition to the jobs created by casinos, tribal gaming revenues are used to fund critical services, improve infrastructure and spur other development.

"Before Indian gaming, our community lived on dirt roads and many of us lived in poverty and struggled to survive. Times were hard," said Stanley Crooks, the chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Minnesota. "Now we are able to help others."

Few deny the improvements gaming has brought to reservations. "It provides needed revenue to be helpful to the tribes to meet their obligations," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman of the committee.

But Dorgan agrees with McCain that IGRA needs to be changed in light of the expansion of the industry. In 1988, tribal casinos -- mostly in the form of bingo halls -- took in $500 million. Now they have become major economic powerhouses in regions throughout the country, a development that has caused friction with non-Indians and state governments.

"To suggest that there's nothing going on here that needs federal legislation is being oblivious to the obvious," Dorgan said at a March 8 hearing.

McCain's bill responds to some of these concerns by limiting the ability of tribes to acquire lands for gaming purposes. It bars out-of-state land acquisitions and imposes new standards on newly recognized and restored tribes.

The measure also responds to concerns that that the industry has expanded without adequate enforcement and oversight. The bill gives the National Indian Gaming Commission more authority to regulate Class III games like slot machines and to review gaming and gaming-related contracts.

There are disagreements, though, over the scope of McCain's bill. Dorgan, for example, says the language regarding gaming-related contracts is too broad, a view shared by tribal leaders and the head of the NIGC, all of whom say too much review will hurt the daily operation of tribes.

A substitute bill, to be brought to the committee by McCain, seeks to resolve some of the debate. It provides more clarity on the types of contracts and agreements that the NIGC will have the authority to review.

The provision related to NIGC authority over Class III gaming, however, remains. If passed, the bill would overturn a court case that the Colorado River Indian Tribes, based in Arizona, won at the federal district court level. The Bush administration is mounting an appeal.

The two-part determination process that allows tribes to seek casinos on land far away from existing casinos would be removed altogether. But newly recognized and restored tribes will still be able to acquire lands for gaming, as long as they demonstrate historical, geographical and temporal ties to the land.

The substitute requires the Interior Department to consult with nearby tribes and local governments to determine whether the acquisition of such lands "would be in the best interests of the Indian tribe and members of the tribe" and "would not be detrimental to the surrounding community, taking into consideration any mitigation by the Indian tribe of the impacts of the gaming establishment."

Finally, a provision that subject the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a former client of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, to IGRA remains in the updated version of the bill.

There are eight Republicans and six Democrats on the committee. In the past, votes have rarely been called because members of both parties tend to agree on legislation.

But since McCain took over, the committee has seem some fractures in its non-partisan outlook. The last time a controversial gaming bill went before a vote, nearly every member attended the meeting, a rare occurrence.

The bill ended up passing by a 10-3 vote, with every Republican voting in favor and three Democrats opposed. But the measure, supported by McCain, has yet to get a vote on the Senate floor.

McCain's IGRA bill is likely to encounter the same kind of resistance on the floor. Since 1988, there have been no major amendments to the law due to conflicting tribal, state and federal interests.

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