McCaleb reopens controversial gaming debate
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Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb gave state and local governments a belated Christmas present last week, reopening the debate on a controversial policy that allows tribes to open casinos on land far away from existing reservations.

Ignoring a cut-off date set by the Clinton administration, McCaleb has extended the public comment period on a federal regulation affecting off-reservation casinos. He made the decision in early December but the action wasn't disclosed until a notice was published in the Federal Register last Thursday.

The move marks another attempt by the Bush administration to change how the Bureau of Indian Affairs does business. Faced with a growing assault by state and local governments, which are often at odds with tribal sovereignty and self-determination, McCaleb has halted several key policies in response to the complaints.

Like the debate over land-into-trust and federal recognition, the core issue affects how much input non-Indians have in a process that is supposed to benefit tribes. In this instance, the regulation being held back has a dual purpose: to restore the lost tribal land base and to expand economic opportunity in Indian Country.

McCaleb has prided himself as being a friend to tribes in the two areas. But in the war over the $10 billion and growing gaming industry -- and the power that goes along with it -- state and local governments appear to have caught McCaleb's ear.

As Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, McCaleb can allow gaming on land taken into trust for a tribe after October 17, 1988. But he can only do so if he determines a casino would be in the best interest of a tribe and would not be detrimental to non-Indians, or other tribes.

Since the land can often be located hundreds of miles away from an existing reservation, the wishes of non-Indians factor heavily into the decision process. In what is called a two-part determination, the governor of a state must concur with McCaleb to make the trust acquisition complete.

Standards defining this process were finalized by the Clinton administration in September 2000, with comments closing two months later. According to McCaleb, however, "substantive issues" were raised after the cut-off date, so he will accept additional responses until February 25.

But unlike his November 2001 decision to repeal the land-into-trust regulations, McCaleb gave no hint of the factors which played into his decision. He only wrote that "consideration" of more comments was necessary before signing off on the rules, hinting that he may pull them back entirely.

In 2001, the BIA offered just one two-part determination. Gov. Scott McCallum (R) of Wisconsin rejected the approval for an off-reservation casino proposed by three Ojibwe tribes. Other tribes also opposed the plans for the Hudson dog track.

In the coming year or two, McCaleb will be considering three off-reservation casinos in the Catskills region of New York. Gov. George Pataki, another Republican, strongly supports the casinos.

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Related Stories:
McCaleb revokes trust land standards (11/9)
States object to proposed gaming policy (9/20)
NIGC takes a gamble on new regulations (7/26)
Wisconsin Governor vetoes Ojibwe casino (5/15)
BIA approves off-reservation Ojibwe casino (2/21)