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GAO Report on Indian Gaming Coming in 2015

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Indian gaming is scheduled to be released in 2015, and some members of Congress — eager to amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) — anxiously await the results.

Anne-Marie Fennell, director of the GAO's Natural Resources and Environment team, testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on July 23 that a sweeping study of what is working and what is not in Indian gaming is underway. This research is focusing on the processes the Department of the Interior uses to comply with IGRA through its review of tribal-state compacts, how states and selected tribes regulate this field, and how the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) oversees tribal gaming.

RELATED: Indian Gaming Reform: What Is Congress Plotting, and How Will SCIA Chair Jon Tester Respond?

GAO to date has analyzed several state-tribal gaming compacts, visited three states — Arizona, California, and Oklahoma — and seven tribes, reviewed NIGC data on technical assistance and enforcement actions, and interviewed Interior and NIGC officials, Fennell testified.

Of note, 78 percent of tribal-state compacts sent to Interior for review since 1998 have been approved, and, in 2012, over 420 gaming establishments were operated by 40 percent of all federally recognized tribes in 28 states.

More preliminary report results, which explain the technical and legal background of the law and the bodies that oversee it, are available online at “I have not personally been involved in past studies on this topic,” Fennell told Indian Country Today Media Network after the hearing, noting that the last time GAO released a report on Indian gaming was in May 1998. “We hope to provide a broad description and evaluation of the regulation and oversight of Indian gaming in our final report.”

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The report from May 1998 looked in depth at five states and Indian gaming regulation within them. In contrast, for the current study, Fennell said the GAO plans to contact all 28 states with Indian gaming to offer a broader array of perspectives from the state level. “It is a challenging area to study for a number reasons,” Fennell said. “One of which is the sheer volume of information to review between the roughly 240 tribes and the 28 states. It is not only gaming compacts, but also tribal gaming ordinances and other documents.

“Given that there are over 200 tribes that conduct gaming, we will not be able to obtain information that is representative of all gaming tribes,” Fennell added. “Rather, for each of the six states that we visit, we are interviewing officials from at least one or two federally recognized tribes with gaming operations regarding their approaches to regulating Indian gaming.”

Fennell noted that the May 1998 report did not touch on the tribal role in regulating Indian gaming, which is a component of her current research. “Learning more about the tribal role in the process has been important and useful in giving a complete picture of the process,” she said. “Hearing and learning about the tribal perspective has been interesting.”??The team working on the project day-to-day is composed of four people, Fennell said, and they receive other support as needed from within the agency, such as legal support.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) noted at the July 23 hearing that he, along with Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), and John McCain (R-Arizona) jointly requested this GAO report. It was McCain, tribal gaming sources say, who pressed hardest for the report because he feels that some areas of Indian gaming are not well-regulated, as he expressed when he unsuccessfully tried to amend IGRA during the early 2000s. Off-reservation gaming has been of particular interest to McCain, especially as it continues to confront his constituents, both tribal and non-tribal, in Arizona.

Barrasso raised a concern during the hearing about NIGC technical assistance and training events and whether these initiatives have been effective. “Effectiveness is a key point of this whole thing, so we look forward to your follow-up report,” he told Fennell.

Fennell said work on the current study began at the end of 2013, and she expects a final report to be released in early 2015.