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Interior Department wary of off-reservation gaming

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne remains concerned about off-reservation gaming, a top aide said on Wednesday, even though efforts to limit the practice were killed in Congress last year.

As governor of Idaho, Kempthorne was adamantly opposed to off-reservation casinos. He signed a compact to restrict gaming to reservation sites and rejected a proposal for an urban-area casino shortly before leaving office.

But now that he's in charge of the Interior Department, he's in a different position. At least two dozen tribes have submitted applications that he must review to determine whether their off-reservation casino proposals are in their best interests.

"We're in the process of trying to reconcile his views as governor and his activities as governor with his role as secretary," Jim Cason, Interior's associate deputy secretary, told the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) yesterday.

In hopes of addressing the issue, the department is working on an off-reservation gaming policy, Cason said. Interior is sending letters to all tribes with off-reservation casino applications under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

"We're going through that process now to examine the applications we have under Section 20 [of IGRA], particularly those that involve the two-part determination and particularly those that involve an application involving land that is a long ways away from the reservation," Cason said.

Section 20 contains four exceptions that allow tribes to open casinos on land that is not currently part of a reservation. Alternatively, in what is known as the two-part determination, it allows tribes to open off-reservation casinos but only if the state governor agrees.

One step towards an off-reservation gaming policy was taken in late December, when Interior approved the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's proposed casino in the Catskills. The New York City-area site is nearly 400 miles from the tribe's reservation.

In a letter to the tribe and to then-governor George Pataki, a Republican who had supported the casino, Cason warned of the political dangers in proceeding with the project. He said the department expects Congress to consider efforts to "restrict or terminate the options available under Section 20" and suggested the tribe consider dropping its proposal.

"We urge you to become fully aware of the changing environment, discuss the risks of pursuing an off-reservation gaming application with your tribal council, legal counsel and business partners, and to consider the relative risks, costs and benefits of pursuing an alternative on-reservation gaming initiative," Cason wrote on December 21, 2006.

Last year, the House considered a bill to rewrite Section 20 of IGRA to make it harder for tribes to open casinos on newly acquired land. It completely eliminated the land claim exception and the two-part determination process.

Amid widespread tribal opposition, the House rejected the bill and its sponsor, former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), lost his bid for re-election. Another measure to change Section 20 never got to the floor in the Senate.

"We faced some tough challenges in the 109th Congress," Mark Van Norman, the executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, told attendees of USET.

With the 110th Congress in the hands of Democrats, Van Norman said he expects lawmakers to focus on health, education, housing and other non-gaming issues. In speeches to USET on Tuesday, key Democratic leaders said they would steer away from gaming.

"We believe that the issues in Indian Country are far broader than just Indian gaming," said Rep. George Miller (D-California).

That doesn't mean another member of Congress won't introduce a bill to restrict off-reservation gaming. Van Norman said NIGA is supporting a regulatory initiative to develop standards for reviewing Section 20 applications.

The regulation will "take some of the political heat off the issue," Van Norman said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to finalize the proposal this spring.

Interior Letter:
Jim Cason to St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (December 21, 2006)

Section 20 Regulations:
Notice of Extension | Text | PDF

NIGA Resolutions:
Section 20 | IGRA Amendments

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