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Dollars for regulators spark gaming spat in Congress

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WASHINGTON - Secret dealings in Congress have sparked the first fight of the new year between the federal regulators of tribal gaming and the industry's trade association.

Both the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), the regulators, and the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), the trade group, watched anxiously and somewhat in the dark the week of Feb. 11 as a joint House-Senate Conference Committee negotiated the final version of an Omnibus Appropriations bill that was rumored to change the fee structure of the NIGC.

Regulators at the Commission are pleading for funds well beyond their current $8 million to help fill out an organizational chart riddled with vacancies. But NIGA Executive Director Mark Van Norman, speaking for many of the largest gaming tribes, criticized the potential Congressional deal as an end run violating federal law requiring government-to-government tribal consultations.

"The NIGC is making an effort to raise the fee cap without consultation," Van Norman told Indian Country Today. "The tribes are making every effort to require it to engage in government-to-government consultation first."

Van Norman said the potential radical revision of the NIGC budget emerged behind closed doors in the Conference Committee without any public hearings. He said NIGA also wanted the Gaming Commission to account publicly for its use of a previous increase in its budget.

A spokesman for the NIGC said that the dealing in the Conference Committee began after the House and Senate failed to agree on the budget increase that the White House proposed for the Commission last year. The Office of Management and Budget allotted an extra $2 million for NIGC, which has become a main exhibit in the mainstream press of the alleged failure of tribal gaming regulation. The House of Representatives approved the sum, but the Senate left it out of the Omnibus bill, a gigantic catch-all approving all the loose ends of the upcoming federal budget.

Rumors emerging from the secretive Conference Committee, which reconciles the work of the two houses, say that a new proposal would instead increase the NIGC budget by removing the cap on the overall amount it can assess as fees on tribal casinos. In a recent presentation at the annual Washington meeting of the United South and Eastern Tribes, the new NIGC Chairman Philip Hogen suggested a fee of 0.1 percent on tribal gaming revenues, or one dollar per thousand of casino profits. He said the fee would bring in about $12 million for NIGC operations, which he argued were severely hampered by the present fee cap.

Since NIGC was currently allowed to assess no more than $8 million in fees, he said, its annual fee had constantly declined as casino revenues rose. For the past year, he said, it fell to a rate of 59 cents for each thousand dollars of profit.

The NIGC spokesmen said the Commission had no solid idea about the dealings in the Conference Committee. Because of the budget constraints, he said, it did not have a director for Congressional liaison.

The negotiations in Congress, he said, were being conducted by the Interior Department's legislative affairs office.