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New York governor approves off-reservation casino

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) approved an off-reservation casino on Monday, marking only the fourth time in the history of Indian gaming that a state has allowed such development.

Since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1998, at least a dozen tribes have sought state approval to open a casino on land far from an existing reservation. But nearly every single proposal has been killed at the state level, with the most recent denials coming from Louisiana and Wisconsin.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe beat the odds with its plan to build a $600 million casino in the Catskills, an economically-depressed region about 90 minutes north of New York City. Although the site is nearly 400 miles from the reservation, Spitzer said the project is in the best interest of the state.

"This agreement creates an economic partnership between the Mohawks and the people of New York," Spitzer said. "By working together, we can establish a premier gaming facility the will produce significant revenues for the tribe and the state, and help spark a resurgence of the Catskills region."

In some major concessions, the tribe has agreed to share up to 25 percent of slot machine revenues with the state and has agreed to comply with all local laws. That means the tribe will collect state taxes on the sale of all goods -- including tobacco -- sold at the casino.

"We rejoice in the prospects this important project presents for the future of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, the people of Sullivan County, and New Yorkers across the state," the council said in a statement.

But bigger issues lie ahead for project, which has been years in the making. The tribe and the state have to lobby the Bush administration to approve the land-into-trust application for the 30-acre site.

That task is typically a major undertaking. A Government Accountability Study found that the tribes have had to wait several years, or even longer, before seeing action on their requests.

For the Mohawks and Spitzer, the effort is further complicated by the views of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who has been on the job less than a year. As governor of Idaho, he adamantly opposed off-reservation gaming.

"We're in the process of trying to reconcile his views as governor and his activities as governor with his role as secretary," Interior's associate deputy secretary, said at the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) annual winter meeting in Washington, D.C. last week. The Mohawks belong to USET.

In December, Cason sent nearly identical letters to the tribe and the state that warned of the dangers of pursuing an off-reservation casino. Members of Congress have sought to restrict or otherwise prohibit "reservation shopping" though they were unable to get any measures passed due to opposition from Indian Country.

One of the major arguments against amending IGRA is the fact that the law's off-reservation provisions have been used rarely in the history of tribal gaming. Since 1988, only three tribes -- the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe of Wisconsin, the Kalispel Tribe of Washington and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Michigan -- have won federal and state approval for casinos away from existing reservations.

Even rarer is the use of a land claim settlement. Only one tribe -- the Seneca Nation, also of New York -- has been able to open a casino under this provision of IGRA.

The Mohawks have a land claim but pursued their Catskills casino under the two-part determination provision of IGRA, which requires state and federal approval. Land claims face another hurdle in that Congress must pass legislation to ratify any settlements.

Despite this history, dozens of tribes are currently pursuing proposals to open casinos on land far from existing reservations and, in some cases, in other states. At the USET meeting last week, Cason said the BIA has put a higher priority on these applications though none have advanced as far as the Mohawks.

The BIA is also finalizing work on regulations that govern how land acquisitions for casinos will be handled. The Section 20 rules could be finalized this spring, according to officials.

New York Announcement:

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:
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe -
National Indian Gaming Association -