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Indian gaming act amendments face time crunch

Most people agree the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is not perfect. Tribes, states and the federal government all have bones to pick about some of the provisions in the 18-year-old law.

But efforts to amend the measure have failed repeatedly in recent years. Tribes complain when they fear losing more of their sovereignty, states get worried when they think tribes are getting too much power and federal officials complain when asked to do more work.

Amid this backdrop come two competing, and not necessarily complementary, proposals to amend IGRA. One is S.2078, a comprehensive measure sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona). The other is H.R.4893, a bill crafted by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California) to address land issues.

Although both bills have made it out of committee, they face tough odds of passage. McCain has acknowledged a dozen holds -- filed by supporters and critics of the $23 billion Indian gaming industry -- that threaten his proposal's future.

Pombo appears to have more backing for his amendments. But a vocal group of Democrats, including Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Michigan) of the Congressional Native American Caucus, and at least one Republican, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), are ready to put up a fight.

The prevailing view in Indian Country is that both bills are bad. The National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Gaming Association and individual tribes like the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians have been lobbying against efforts to increase federal oversight of casinos and restrict the ability to acquire new land for gaming.

A handful of tribes, however, support attempts to block off-reservation gaming. They include the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in California, whose leaders are accusing other tribes of "shopping" for land to which they have no ancestral or historical ties.

Add the Interior Department and the National Indian Gaming Commission to the picture and the landscape gets even more muddied. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is finalizing new regulations that would address some of the land issues raised by McCain and Pombo. Tribes are backing this process but the two lawmakers aren't putting much faith in BIA's abilities right now.

NIGC officials have welcomed certain provisions of McCain's legislation that would affirm regulation of Class III games and increase the agency's budget and resources. But their concerns about federal review of all gaming and gaming-related contracts prompted a rewrite of one of the major sections of S.2078 in order to delay implementation for at least a year.

With only a handful of legislative days left in the 109th Congress, it's clear time is running out to change IGRA. Lawmakers are due for a monthlong break next week and the midyear elections will distract members of both parties.

For McCain, who is stepping down as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee at the end of the year, failure on S.2078 would represent another setback. His attempt to reform lobbying practices in Washington, D.C., fell flat earlier this year despite the high-profile attention to his investigation of convicted former tribal lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

McCain could resurrect some of his regulatory proposals in standalone bills that have more chance of passage than his IGRA overhaul. S.1295, the National Indian Gaming Commission Accountability Act, has already passed the Senate, for example.

Pombo is up for re-election this year and has been questioned by critics about his ties to Indian gaming. He has received more than $500,000 in campaign contributions from tribes, some with business before the House Resources Committee.

His bill is pitched as a way to limit off-reservation gaming yet one of the biggest sections is taken up by provisions that would benefit just two tribes in southern California who want to locate side-by-side casinos on one reservation. Local officials support the approach and it could be addressed in a standalone bill as well.

The cloudy outlook has put another Indian gaming bill on the backburner. The Bush administration is seeking to restrict the Class II gaming industry but won't be pushing its legislation this year due to the activity on McCain's and Pombo's measures.

Pombo IGRA Bill:
H.R.4893 | MP3: House Resources Committee Debate | Substitute | Explanation

McCain IGRA Bill:
S.2078 | Senate Indian Affairs Committee Report

National Indian Gaming Association Resolutions:
Section 20 | IGRA Amendments

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