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'A historic victory for Indian country'

An interview with Ernie Stevens Jr.

Part one

WASHINGTON - After a preliminary conversation with Ernie Stevens Jr. and Mark Van Norman, chairman and executive director, respectively, of the National Indian Gaming Association, at the National Congress of American Indians State of the Indian Nations Address on Jan. 25, Indian Country Today submitted written interview questions to NIGA. Stevens replied in writing, and the result is a three-part interview.

Indian Country Today: At the beginning of 2005 and certainly by January 2006 it looked like Congress was gearing up to revisit the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act with a vengeance. Indian country and its allies met the challenge. As Indian country's lead organization on gaming, can you give readers an idea of what it was like to be at the center of that struggle, and what were some of the principles and/or strategies NIGA had to follow in order to prevail?

Ernie Stevens Jr.: At the beginning of the 109th Congress, both Senate Indian Affairs Chairman John McCain and House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo announced plans to amend IGRA. McCain held hearings in 2005 and 2006 on the NIGC's regulatory authority, gaming contracts, and off-reservation gaming. Pombo held hearings on off-reservation gaming and pledged to limit his bill to that area. NIGA worked very hard throughout the year to keep in touch with our tribal leaders. We met at least once and often several times each month with tribal leaders and we received strong support from Indian tribes around the nation for our defense of IGRA. Standing together, Indian country achieved a landmark victory in defending IGRA in the 109th Congress.

In March 2006, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs marked up the McCain bill, S. 2078, but tribal governments had serious concerns with the bill because it had the potential to undermine the existing IGRA tribal/state compact system by authorizing the NIGC to issue gaming regulations to control the operation of Class III Indian gaming without regard to existing compacts. Tribes were also very concerned that the NIGC would have been delegated power to approve or disapprove all contracts related to Indian gaming in excess of $250,000 from A to Z. Clearly, this duty was beyond the capacity of the agency and could have blocked tribal government access to markets.

Additionally, S. 2078 sought to eliminate the Section 20 secretarial determination process [of the Interior Department] for acquisition of trust lands after 1988 for Indian gaming. Tribal governments generally believed that the record under IGRA - only three projects approved in 18 years - did not justify doing away with the process.

Tribes were not alone in our opposition to S. 2078. Six states opposed S. 2078 because it had the potential to interfere with tribal/state compacts and state officials recognized the great strides tribes have taken through Indian gaming. They shared tribal concerns that a new, expansive federal bureaucratic role could interfere with tribal economic development and might conflict with existing state and tribal regulatory efforts.

In the House, the Resources Committee marked up H.R. 4893 in July 2006 and brought it forward on the House suspension calendar on Sept. 13, 2006. Tribal governments generally opposed H.R. 4893 because it would have subordinated tribal governments to county governments, burdened the process for restored, landless and newly recognized tribes to get their initial reservations, and it would have struck down the Section 20 secretarial determination process. H.R. 4893 failed by 247 to 171 because it needed a two-thirds majority on the suspension calendar. Pombo tried to move the bill again in the lame duck session [of November and December 2006], but there was simply too much tribal opposition and too many other issues to take care of, so the bill was stopped without further action and died at the end of the session.

With all of that legislative activity going on, some folks in Indian country felt that we were at the eye of the hurricane and there was a great deal of uncertainty concerning these proposed IGRA amendments, the risks inherent in the legislative process, and the potential impacts on Indian gaming and Indian sovereignty. Many tribal governments, who opposed the bills, were concerned that a fast-moving train was going to run over all opposition. Yet, we had clear marching orders from our tribal leaders - strongly oppose these bills because they will undercut tribal rights and put Indian gaming at risk.

ICT: The Speaker of the House at that time, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is known to have pushed a bill to end off-reservation gaming until the last days of the 109th Congress, even after its lead sponsor lost his re-election bid. Can you offer any detail as to what happened regarding the bill as the 109th Congress was coming to an end?

Stevens: During the lame-duck session in December, Pombo once again worked to bring his bill forward for passage in the House. NIGA and many of our tribal leaders met in Washington on Dec. 4, 2006, and once again, we opposed H.R. 4893. Based on the clear tribal opposition, Pombo dropped his efforts to bring the bill to the House floor. While Hastert never directly addressed Indian tribes on the issue, there was talk about efforts by him and others to bring H.R. 4893 forward as a rider on the Tax and Trade Bill at the end of the session; but in the face of strong tribal opposition, that effort was also dropped while Congress focused on ''higher priority issues.'' At the end, it was a historic victory for Indian country when Congress closed its doors in December, with the integrity of IGRA preserved.

(Continued in part two)