Bits & pieces

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There has been a glut of business-related news emanating from all corners of Indian country of late. In addition to the usual gaming happenings, tribes are building hotels, buying car dealerships, laying out golf courses and expanding into all kinds of other non-gaming related business ventures. Space limitations in our Trade & Commerce section have prevented us from covering all of the newsworthy developments in the world of Indian gaming. A brief look at some current events would be well advised this week.

Arizona

The special legislative session that began in early April has thus far failed to produce agreement on the compact extension negotiated by Republican Gov. Jane Hull with 17 of the state's gaming tribes. The Hull proposal would allow for more slot machines at Indian casinos and would add blackjack to their slate of games. In return, the state of Arizona would receive eight percent of the slot take. This deal would last 29 years.

Critics in the Legislature and elsewhere say the deal is too long and doesn't give the state enough money. Legislators have produced their own version of the deal. Their proposal would last a maximum of 23 years and would require a public disclosure of tribal gaming profits and the provision of other data in confidence to legislative officials.

The tribes believe that such disclosure not only infringes upon their sovereignty, but also that it could create a competitive imbalance among them; they are willing to provide only an aggregate statewide total of their gambling revenues.

If the legislature fails either to approve Hull's deal, which it will not do, or enact its own version, which the tribes will not likely accept, then the measure could go before the state's voters in a referendum on Nov. 5.

New England

Massachusetts could be Indian country's next gaming state.

Voices have been heard around the state calling for the establishment of a single Indian gaming facility, to be run by the Aquinah (Gay Head) Wampanoag Tribe, in the southeastern part of the state. This proposed casino would keep gamblers and their money closer to home, while generating much-needed funds for the state's coffers. So far, no concrete action has been taken, although a few small towns in the central part of the state have reportedly enacted resolutions supporting casino gaming, while a statewide poll last February indicated widespread support. Critics say the idea would hurt the state lottery and cause crime and corruption.

Meanwhile, voters in York, Maine soundly rejected prospects for casino gaming in their town by a margin of 3,057 to 767 in a May 18 non-binding referendum. The town of Berwick had also recently rejected gaming and other towns in the area, including Kittery, have scheduled referenda.

The gaming issue in Maine came to the forefront after the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Tribes proposed a casino for the town of Kittery, which is just over the border from New Hampshire and within an easy drive of Boston. The tribes hoped to capture some of the area's gamblers who patronized Connecticut's Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. Maine's governor, Angus S. King Jr., an Independent, is solidly anti-gaming, but due to leave office this year.

In Rhode Island, the state legislature in early May authorized a nine-month study on the economic impact of gaming in that state. The Narragansett Tribe has partnered with Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming Inc. to build and operate a proposed casino. The two parties submitted a watered-down version of their plans to the state on May 14, which included 2,700 slot machines, 96 gaming tables, a hotel and a convention center. State law requires a voter referendum on the issue as the proposed site in West Warwick is not tribal land. The Narragansetts have also reportedly lost the support of Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, D-R.I., who had formerly backed the tribe's efforts to enter the gaming arena.

Several tribes in Connecticut continue to battle for federal recognition and the right to negotiate gaming compacts. Prospects for these tribes will be challenging, however, as a rather strident opposition has developed against expanded Indian gaming in that state. Recent proposals for a new Indian gaming facility in Fairfield County, the state's wealthy and crowded southwestern corner, have fueled a backlash against recognizing any more tribes, no matter how legitimate their claims may be.

New York

As previously reported, the Seneca Nation of Indians in the western part of the state recently voted to approve a proposed gaming compact calling for three new Indian-owned casinos. The close vote underscores divisions within the tribe on the merits of becoming involved in gaming. Non-Indians and gaming opponents in the area have complained about not having a voice in such an important matter affecting their region's economic and social health.

Yet despite the Seneca approval, obstacles remain before any new casino can be opened. On May 20, the Buffalo News listed several reasons why the casinos may not be built. Among these are provisions in the proposed compact calling for the state eventually to receive 25 percent of the Senecas' slot machine take; the News noted that BIA has nixed deals in other states calling for 15.5 percent and 16 percent payments by tribes. The Mohegan Tribe's gaming compact with Connecticut, however, calls for annual payments to the state of 25 percent of slot revenues under certain conditions.

The Buffalo paper also pointed out that despite the proposal's call for Seneca gaming exclusivity in Western New York, the October 2001 legislation authorizing negotiations contained no such provisions. That legislation apparently authorizes the installation of video lottery terminals at racetracks, of which at least two are situated within the supposed exclusivity zone.

According to a recent Zogby International poll commissioned by the News, some 60 percent of Niagara County residents favor a Indian gaming in Niagara Falls, while over half of those polled in Erie County were against a Buffalo casino. State law does not provide for a public referendum.

Concerns have also been raised that the deal would set a precedent for Indian gaming facilities in the middle of large metropolitan areas. Other issues, including law enforcement jurisdiction on Indian-owned territory surrounded by the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls and the role of labor unions at the casinos, still need to be addressed.

After the Seneca vote, officials in both cities have welcomed the proposed casinos. Buffalo and Niagara Falls (and particularly the latter) are currently mired in a prolonged economic slump. While realizing that casinos are not a panacea, the cities hope to use them as a way to boost local economic fortunes by creating jobs, luring tourists and attracting complementary private development in adjacent areas.

Oregon

On May 21, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs were slated to vote on whether to authorize construction of their second casino. The new facility's proposed off-reservation site is in the Columbia River Gorge. Balloting results were not available by press time.

Pro-gaming elements of the tribe estimate a second casino could post an annual profit of $15.5 million; the Associated Press recently reported that the tribe's annual income from logging operations has dropped from $26 million in 1994 to only $4 million.

Expanded gaming faces opposition from both within the tribe and from external sources.

The Tribes' original on-reservation gaming facility, Indian Head Casino, opened in 1996.

Texas

Back in February, the state of Texas ordered the Tigua Indians to close their Speaking Rock casino, the tribe's only source of revenue. As the El Paso area is hardly an economic hotbed, tribal members and other former casino workers have had a difficult time finding other employment, and tribal economic prospects as a whole have stagnated. A federal district court judge issued a ruling on May 14 that may allow the tribe to offer a limited menu of games, including bingo and "eight-liners," a game combining elements of tic-tac-toe and bingo.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Tigua's request to offer carnival-type contests as, under Texas law, such games are only legal for religious, fraternal, school, and other non-profit or civic groups. The court further nixed the tribe's attempt to offer "player pool" and card games. Under the Texas Lottery Act, the eight-liners are only permissible if the winner receives merchandise instead of cash. Further, prizes must not be worth more than the lesser of 10 times the cost for a single play or $5.

The Tiguas' gaming operations are governed by the federal 1987 Restoration Act that gave the tribe recognition. The judge's ruling confirmed that the tribe's gaming is not subject to state regulation, but added that the Tiguas must first get a state charitable-bingo license in order to offer the game.

As is evident by events in the various states, tribes across the country face many different political, economic and social situations affecting their participation in, or even their ability to participate in gaming. Some of these situations are under their control and others lie well outside their sphere of influence; there is no universal constant or shining example that can be applied across the board to all tribes, or even a majority of them. In any case, Indian gaming continues to be a mixed bag, in which some tribes enjoy the fruit, while others are kicked out of the orchard or banned altogether.