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Conference hears feedback, anticipates gaming revenue

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A gathering of Chickasaw Nation members Aug. 9 marked the start of a countdown to 2010, when increased tribal revenues and a test run of existing social programs will allow expanded services for this casino-rich Oklahoma tribe.

;'Fiscal year '09 will be a period of maturation for our existing programs and a time for getting additional citizen input,'' said Chickasaw Governor Bill Anoatubby, who greeted tribal well-wishers, families and friends at a Listening Conference held several hundred miles from tribal headquarters at Ada, Okla. The conference allowed 400 Chickasaws to make suggestions about health, housing, education and aging programs for at-large tribal members.

''With that information, and more revenue in 2010, it will give us more to work with on our programs,'' he said in an interview.

The conference in Colorado Springs was one of nine held this summer in Kansas, Texas, California, Colorado, Oregon and Oklahoma - areas where there are concentrations of Chickasaw citizens.

The tribal nation informally polls its far-flung members periodically in an innovative program designed to elicit feedback to the tribe's government about the services it provides. Larger biennial Listening Conferences are held in Oklahoma City for tribal members nationwide.

With 38,000 members, the Chickasaw Nation is the 13th-largest federally recognized tribe. It is centered in south-central Oklahoma on nearly 8,000 square miles where approximately one-third of tribal members live. Another third reside in Oklahoma outside that immediate area, and the final third throughout the U.S.

''We're trying to meet as many of our citizens' needs as we can,'' Anoatubby said, ''and we need the input we get from these gatherings.''

Resort-type additions to Winstar Casino near the Oklahoma-Texas border and expansion at Riverwind Casino, south of Norman, Okla., are expected to swell tribal income by 2010. The tribe has 18 casinos - the largest number in the state.

In 2007, $130 million went into tribal government programs from the $200 million in gaming and business revenues remaining after operating costs.

With the program money, the Chickasaw Nation has developed an array of social services that range from a residential and educational care facility for Native children, Chickasaw Nation Aviation and Space Academy for grades 5 - 12, various scholarships and summer academies, cultural heritage and genealogical services, performing arts, adult learning, college aid programs, storm shelter assistance, elder programs and services, and many others totaling more than 80.

Some specific services are also innovative, at least in Oklahoma. Among them, the tribe's prescription drug service, which allows qualifying tribal members to receive prescriptions by mail at no direct cost.

A medical services representative at the conference noted that several other Southeastern tribes had talked to the Chickasaw Nation about implementing a similar prescription drug program for their members: ''They wanted to know how we did it.''

''Some of the things we thought might work we may have to research a bit through more information-gathering,'' Anoatubby said.

For example, he said, there was a lot of support for the over-65 prescription drug program for those with Medicare Part D or other insurance, but it didn't materialize in great numbers.

''Participation was not as high as we might have thought,'' he said. ''But we'll continue it and continue to promote it. People may access it in a different way and we may need to take time and get it right.''

Representatives of various tribal programs also said they are in a holding pattern for the moment, although one change the conference sought - a separate toll-free number for aging services - may be implemented before the new fiscal year.

''That's something everybody talked about - communication,'' said an aging services representative. ''They wanted a separate toll-free, and that's what we're planning on doing.''

Anoatubby sees continued positives for Chickasaws in the future despite the inevitability of change.

A cloud on the horizon for some tribes was a proposed change in National Indian Gaming Commission rules that would return more money from casino gaming to state coffers and with which the Chickasaws, among other tribal nations, disagreed. While the harshest changes appear to have been discarded, revisions could be made that would affect electronic versions of Class II games, which include pull tabs, bingo and others.

Under the Chickasaw compact with the state of Oklahoma, 6 percent of casino gaming revenues - calculated on an amount that Anoatubby said falls between net and gross casino profits - goes to the state.

In a report to tribal members, the tribe said total cash received from gaming in 2007 was approximately $9.6 billion, less cash winnings and commission payments of nearly $9.2 billion, leaving total proceeds at about $4 million. By whatever exact formula the state is paid, the amount involved is obviously substantial with or without potential increases.

''Most of what we do now [in terms of social programs] falls within the compact with the state,'' Anoatubby said. ''We protected the things we are doing.''

In addition, revenues in 2010 are expected to increase because of improvements and expansions at the two largest casinos.

''The Chickasaw Nation doesn't pay the state begrudgingly because, with the agreement, it settled a lot of issues that present themselves from a regulatory point of view,''

he said.

If Class II standards are changed, ''it's difficult to say what the effect will be,'' he said, but negative impacts are expected to be minimal because ''there has been careful planning to protect resources.''

The Listening Conference concept appears to have originated with the Chickasaw Nation in 2006, he said, although other tribal nations may have adopted it since then.

A tribally funded Chickasaw Citizens Outreach Program supports Chickasaw community councils in several states as part of the Nation's program to foster tribal unity and cohesion across geographic boundaries.