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House committee approves Gun Lake gaming compact

LANSING, Mich. - The state House Regulatory Reform Committee unanimously approved a gaming compact between the Gun Lake Tribe and Gov. Jennifer Granholme, edging the tribe's proposed gaming and entertainment complex in Wayland Country one step closer to reality.

The bipartisan committee approved the compact July 24 by a vote of 6 - 0, with two members abstaining.

D.K. Sprague, tribal chairman of the Gun Lake Tribe or Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, acknowledged the vote as another step toward fairness for the tribe.

''Every federally recognized tribe in Michigan besides my tribe has a signed and duly approved gaming compact. We are not asking for any more, or any less, than what every other tribe has. We simply ask for fair treatment,'' Sprague said in a prepared statement.

There are 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan and 17 casinos, with an 18th casino due to open in August.

The tribe estimates that its proposed $200 million casino will directly employ 1,800 people with a total average annual compensation package of $40,000, and provide an additional 3,100 indirect jobs and more than $20 million per year in direct purchases of goods and services from the area's businesses.

The House committee resolution was co-sponsored by 57 House members, led by Democratic state Rep. Barbara Farrah. That's more than the majority needed to win approval in the 110-member House.

The committee vote followed more than an hour of testimony from representatives of various groups that attended the hearing, including the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce; the Southwest Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council; West Michigan Building Trades; the Deputy Sheriff's Association of Michigan; the Allegan County Sheriff's Department; Wayland Township; the city of Wayland; and the Friends of Gun Lake Indians, a citizens' support group.

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Few people spoke against the compact, said Gun Lake spokesman James Nye.

Republican state Sen. Patty Birkholz said she opposed the compact in part because she fears it will provide economic benefits to Allegan County at the expense of downtown Grand Rapids, even though she represents all of Allegan County, Nye reported.

Another Republican state senator, Mark Jansen, said he worried that the casino would negatively impact people in Allegan County who are ''already addicted'' to harmful behaviors such as methamphetamine abuse.

Roger VanVolkinburg, the supervisor of Wayland Township, the host municipality of Gun Lake's proposed casino, spoke in support of the compact.

''We need to get back on track here. This is not a gaming issue. We don't make those choices, but we do advocate for a way to get needed revenues from this facility,'' VanVolkinburg said.

The tribe currently pays $30,000 in annual property taxes, but will pay $3 million to local governments under a 2 percent local revenue-sharing provision in the compact.

John Wernet, Granholm's deputy legal counsel on Native American Affairs, told the committee that Gun Lake's compact was an improvement over previous state-tribal compacts. The state will receive a revenue share of 8 - 12 percent in exchange for a limited nine-county exclusivity zone, Wernet said.

At the end of July, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., was expected to receive final written briefs in a case filed by an anti-Indian casino group against the Interior Department's decision to take land into trust for Gun Lake. Oral arguments and a final ruling could come as early as the fall. In a precedent-setting case in 2006, the appeals court tossed out an identical appeal filed by another Michigan anti-Indian group against the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi - Gun Lake's cousins and neighbors. Gun Lake anticipates the same outcome.