Rejection of Choctaw compact speaks to policy ahead
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The Bush administration on Thursday rejected a controversial casino agreement that drew high-profile attention, and opposition, from state officials in Louisiana and members of Congress.

In a letter to Cheryl Smith, chief of the Jena Band of Choctaws, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb denied the tribe's gaming compact with the state of Louisiana. A provision requiring the sharing of 15.5 percent of net revenues constituted an illegal "tax" under federal law, he said.

"[T]here is nothing unilateral, benevolent, or gratuitous in the band's required payment," he wrote.

McCaleb's heavily anticipated decision caps off a flurry of activity surrounding the compact. Negotiated largely in secret, Gov. Mike Foster (R) spent the last few weeks defending the agreement amid opposition from state attorney general Richard Ieyoub (D) and several members of Congress, including Reps. Chris John (D) and David Vitter (R) and Sens. John Breaux (D) and Mary Landrieu (D), who urged the Department of Interior, in varying degrees, to reject the deal.

The action highlighted the high-stakes political lobbying associated with the $10 billion and growing industry. The jockeying went all the way to the top, as Secretary Gale Norton was pressured on all sides of the issue, although it appears opponents outnumbered support by Foster and the community in and around Vinton, where a casino would be located.

McCaleb's decision letter, however, spoke only to the legal realities of Indian gaming. He made it clear that the Bush administration would follow closely a federal law which prohibits states from imposing taxes, charges and fees on tribal casinos.

But hinting to future policy regarding the trust land, another touchy issue, McCaleb said he was concerned. The tribe, which was recognized in 1995, is landless and has asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to create a 40-acre reservation.

That request, said McCaleb, will be considered "another day" yet said he might reject it as well. He added: "However, with the information before us, we have some concerns with an initial reservation located over 150 miles from the band's traditional service area."

The tribe's office is located in Jena, in north-central Louisiana. On the other hand, Vinton was across the state near the Texas border.

The land-into-trust application is still being reviewed, said BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling. She had no timetable for the request and said McCaleb was only giving the tribe a heads up on the matter.

"It looks like the governor and the tribe have negotiated in good faith," she said. "If they come to a new compact, we look forward to them presenting it to us."

Foster said he was disappointed with the rejection and suggested gaming law should be changed to allow the type of agreement he negotiated. He said the tribe could just find another location for a casino and the state would not get a cut of the revenue.

A request for comment by the tribe was not returned yesterday.

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