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Gun Lake pact on hold

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LANSING, Mich. - At the 11th hour of the legislative session in Michigan, a House resolution would have meant the governor had to negotiate a compact with the small Gun Lake Band of Pottawatomi Indians, but that decision will have to wait until September.

A strong force opposing any casino in the western part of the state comes from a religious right movement that has as its motto: "Not in our back yard," Gun Lake authorities say.

Gun Lake Tribal Chairman D.K. Sprague said he was confident the House resolution would pass. He said House members told him it would, but last-minute, heavy lobbying and protesting by the opposing elements brought about indecision on the part of the lawmakers who passed the decision along to the next session of the Legislature, after the summer break.

"In western Michigan there are Christian reform people, all Republicans with lots of money and their favorite saying is, 'not in my backyard,' it's fine elsewhere.

"I'm not concerned. We are doing our fee to trust as we speak. Once the process is complete the tribe will press forward with Class II gaming if they don't want to negotiate with us. The opposition doesn't believe we will spend the money. They say if we don't compact with them, they think we won't go forward. They don't believe us," Sprague said.

The Gun Lake Band, with the help of investors from Mount Pleasant, want to build a 180,000 square-foot casino and resort on U.S. Highway 131 about 30 miles south of Grand Rapids in Allegan County.

Governor John Engler has negotiated 11 compacts but refused to negotiate with the newly federally recognized Gun Lake tribe. He set down the rules before the tribe received recognition saying he was not going to negotiate any more tribal gaming compacts. He later said he would negotiate if the House and Senate passed resolutions required it.

The tribe then accused the state of bad-faith negotiations. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has a provision that states that if a governor does not negotiate in good faith legal action can be taken against the state.

House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy, who supports the compact, said it allowed the state to maintain some regulation over the casino and collect taxes on gaming receipts. He and other casino supporters admit the Gun Lake Band could open a Class II casino without state regulation or benefits in revenues.

"The tribe talks about fairness. There are 11 tribes operating 17 casinos, the state allows horse racing and they have a lottery. Kent County spends the largest amount for the lottery. Grand Rapids is in Kent County, which is run by Amway billionaires and those who run the church," said Rex Hackler, spokesman and consultant for the tribe.

Sprague and Hackler claim the battle over the compact has been dirty. They assert that some of the opposition conducted a survey in Detroit, the other side of the state, to feel people out on a demographic basis if they support expansion of gaming and responses were negative.

"(The opposition) was not telling anyone this survey was 150 miles away," Hackler said.

Hardball politics also played into the mix. Some western Republican senators threatened to withhold their votes on a redistricting plan drawn up by the Republicans if they were not given more time to fight the compact vote.

"Some members felt it would be difficult to vote on (redistricting) if we were not allowed a postponement until fall," said Rep. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck.

The vote continued on redistricting with the lawmakers assuming they had struck a deal with Johnson on a delay over the compact vote. A vote last year defeated the Gun Lake compact bill on the objections of Sen. William Van Regenmorter, R-Georgetown Township. He said he would again try to block the Senate from approving a resolution to negotiate the compact for Allegan County.

More than half of the working people in Allegan County commute to Grand Rapids for work. A recent paper mill opened with 200 jobs and 1,200 people applied, Sprague said. The casino would mean that hundreds of jobs would remain in the county, pay the wages and without the 35-mile travel expense.

"Business organizations realize it will bring jobs and opportunity to the county," Sprague said.

Three business organizations in Allegan County support the casino, and Sprague said the Chamber of Commerce has been criticized for its support.

Allegan County Treasurer Fultan Sheen attended a rally outside the state capitol and accused the Republican legislature of "shoving the casino down our throats."

Harold Voorhees, a former state representative, and a Republican Party District Chairman said his party was making a mistake by angering the western Republicans.

"At the last meeting on the casino, a bunch of people showed up and told members of the Gun Lake Band to 'go back to where you came from.' Another said 'we don't want your kind here,'" Hackler said. He added that a backlash occurred and now the words are spoken under the surface.

"Without using the words prejudice and racist, I can't describe these people.

They aren't speaking against others, it's racism, pure and simple," Sprague said.