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Gaming industry leaders prepare to defend IGRA

LAS VEGAS - American Indian gaming leaders are prepping for a
no-holds-barred battle with Congress over plans to open and amend the
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, officials said during the recent Global
Gaming Expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

"We are engaged in hand-to-hand combat as we speak," Jana McKeag, vice
president of government relations at Venture Catalyst Inc., said
matter-of-factly as she moderated a round-table discussion Sept. 15 aptly
titled "Indian gaming: The coming federal battle."

At issue is whether the federal government should be allowed to revisit
IGRA and make changes to the current pact. In June, U.S. Sen. John McCain,
R-Ariz., head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said at a panel
hearing that he plans to amend the act to strengthen federal regulation of
tribal casinos, restrict Indian gaming on off-reservation land and tighten
a loophole that allows tribes to pay huge fees to advisers as long as they
are described as consultants instead of managers.

Industry leaders have balked at the idea, saying the federal government is
already over-regulating Indian gaming. But McCain wants the issue addressed
again, seeing that the tribal casino industry has gone from a $500 million
per year industry in 1988 (when the act was passed) to a nearly $19 billion
industry, according to 2004 figures.

First to address the issue was Phil Hogen, chairman of the National Indian
Gaming Commission, who tried to quell some of the concerns Indian leaders
had regarding the opening of IGRA.

"I don't think the federal government has its sights set on Indian gaming.
I don't think anyone is out to destroy or minimize Indian gaming," said
Hogen. "There are some things that need to be clarified, and simply
clarifying those issues doesn't mean you're targeting Indian gaming: it
means you're trying to build it."

Mark Van Norman, executive director of the National Indian Gaming
Association, acknowledged the success of Indian gaming, but was quick to
point out that Congress and the media often overlook the contributions
tribes are making to their communities.

"We are generating 500,000 jobs across the country, and [Indian gaming] has
made a tremendous difference for Indian country," Van Norman said during
the first-ever G2E keynote focusing solely on tribal gaming.

In addition to constructing new schools, community centers and making other
necessary infrastructure improvements, Van Norman said tribes in Arizona
are first responders to vehicle accidents along certain stretches of
Interstate 10, while in California the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians aid
in wildfire suppression. "That's where the revenues are going for Indian
gaming. It's our job to get that message out there and show that tribes are
helping their neighbors."

Deron Marquez, chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians
and a longtime outspoken critic against federal involvement in Indian
affairs, told the audience he was saddened to see talk of gaming taking
precedent over much larger issues.

"The frustration I have is gaming always seems to take a front stage to the
more, in my mind, real important issues such as health care, housing and
education. This government promised our people they would take care of us,
and until that's fulfilled I think that should be our focus," Marquez said.

As for opening IGRA, Marquez sees it as inevitable. "The fact is, Congress
is talking about it. It's going to happen. Let's prepare ourselves to deal
with it and make it a positive experience."

Marquez said he would welcome federal oversight of Indian gaming over state
regulations. "I can only speak for California, but our [Indian] gaming
commissions are more qualified and more competent than the state regulatory
bodies; and I would feel more comfortable dealing directly with the federal
government, and working with the NIGC and cut out the states. I don't want
to see more layers. We are the most regulated industry in the country. We
don't need more. It's already there. In my mind, anything that can be done
to kick out the states I'm in favor of, but don't add on to it."

Hogen responded by saying that the current structure is actually "working
rather well," adding that he didn't feel there was a "one size fits all"
solution to regulating the industry.

George Skibine, acting deputy assistant secretary of policy and economic
development for the Office of Indian Management at the BIA, admitted IGRA
will be a "coming storm" but described other issues, such as tribes seeking
off-reservation casinos, as hot-button topics for Congress. It's one on
which Marquez has strong feelings.

"There has to be some ancestral tie to the area you are trying to establish
gaming in. I cannot support tribes leaving their existing territory for
somewhere else, simply for the purpose of gaming," Marquez said.