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Arizona house votes down gaming compact bill

PHOENIX ? After three years of negotiating a new gaming compact with Gov. Jane Hull, 17 gaming tribes in Arizona were optimistic about gaining legislative approval for the agreement they forged in late February.

Instead, Senate Bill 1001 languished for seven weeks in the legislature where it met widespread resistance and stonewalling during a special session on Indian gaming. The bill died May 22 when the House voted it down 28-25 with seven members absent.

Sen. Herb Guenther, the bill's sponsor, characterized a four-hour special meeting hearing last week as "half racial discrimination, half Indian-bashing."

Gov. Jane Hull echoed that sentiment in expressing her disappointment with the House's action, in light of major compromises offered by tribes that would give the state payment of up to eight percent of Indian gaming revenue for up to 23 years.

"SB 1001 would have put firm limits on Indian gaming, kept casino gaming confined to reservations, provided for sound regulation and obtained revenue sharing from the tribes.

"This bill wasn't defeated, it was mugged by track lobbyists who want casino gaming to spread off the reservation," she said, referring to intense efforts by Arizona's track lobby to wage a media war against Indian gaming. "It was a sound policy for the future of Arizona. I trust the people of Arizona to make the right decision at the ballot in November."

The privately owned horse and dog tracks filed suit earlier this year to stop the governor from signing new gaming compacts.

"The track's attack on the tribes is to try to shut down Indian gaming," said David LaSarte, executive director of Arizona Indian Gaming Association. "That's the point of their lawsuit."

Now it's up to Arizona voters, who have demonstrated support for Indian gaming in recent polls. Surveys are finding that public opinion supports Indian casinos and opposes extending gaming to private dog and horse tracks.

Anticipating a lack of support in the House, a statewide coalition of tribes filed a ballot initiative May 13 that will let voters decide the issue on the Nov. 5 ballot.

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"We filed this initiative to preserve our right to take the issue to the voters of Arizona," said Donald R. Antone Sr., governor of the Gila River Indian Community and chairman of Arizonans for Fair Gaming and Indian Self-Reliance. "Given the requirements and timetable for qualifying for the November ballot, we must begin gathering signatures now."

The coalition needs to collect more than 100,000 valid voter signatures by July 4 in order to qualify for the Nov. 2002 ballot.

The tribes made many compromises with the state to achieve new gaming compacts, including giving the state additional regulatory oversight and providing a share of gaming revenues to state and local governments.

The four major components of the initiative include extending state-tribal compacts up to 23 years, providing a mechanism for non-gaming tribes located in remote areas of the state to benefit from gaming revenues, giving the state additional regulatory control and sharing gaming revenues with state and local governments.

Arizona House members, through various amendments to the bill, had called for tribes to disclose their individual gross gaming revenue and limit the spread of Indian gaming if other operations won approval to run casino-style games.

Under the initiative proposed by the tribal gaming coalition, gaming revenues shared with the state will be directed to specific funds rather than going into the state's general fund.

Tribal gaming revenue would have to be spent on education programs like dropout prevention, teacher pay raises and reducing class sizes; emergency services and trauma centers; wildlife and habitat conservation; tourism promotion and government services such as public safety and economic development.

The initiative would allocate nine percent of shared revenues to cover the state's regulatory costs, two percent for gambling addiction treatment and 89 percent for the Arizona Benefit Fund, the majority of which would go to education.

"Our goal with the initiative is to ensure that the tribal governmental gaming revenues shared with the state are specifically directed to vital services that have significant benefits to the people of Arizona and the state's economy," Antone said.

As tribes move forward with a signature drive, they feel certain they will win the support of Arizona voters, despite the lack of legislative support.

"Obviously, we're disappointed by the vote," La Sarte said. "But we're still determined to push forward on the ballot this fall."