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H.R. 1814: States could hold tribes hostage for taxes

WASHINGTON, D.C. - If bill H.R. 1814 is passed by the House of Representatives, it may mean tribes which do not collect state taxes can lose trust land.

The new bill is to "provide incentive for Indian tribes to collect and pay lawfully imposed State sales taxes on goods sold on tribal lands and to provide for penalties against Indian tribes that do not collect and pay such State sales taxes."

Opponents of the measure fear it will do much more than provide incentive to pay state taxes, they fear it will give states more power than ever over tribal governments.

The bill would allow states to collect state taxes on goods and services sold on tribal lands. If the tribe fails to collect and pay state taxes, the state could complaint to the Secretary of the Interior. Once the complaint is made, the federal government would have the right to take the land upon which the business sits and remove it from its trust status.

Amendments have been making their way through the halls of Congress, but opponents fear even a watered-down version could endanger tribal sovereignty by making tribes accountable to state governments.

"Further, Legislation would undermine the Secretary's authority by granting state and local governments final control - essentially a veto - over the secretary's decision whether to place land into trust," Deputy Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Michael J. Anderson told the Committee on Resources, Oct. 12, 1999.

"Tribes wanting to restore their land base would be forced to rely on the goodwill of state and local governments whose taxes are at stake because earlier legislative proposals provided no remedy to a tribe if a state or local government refused to negotiate a tax agreement in good faith.

"After the decision in Seminole, states cannot be compelled to negotiate agreements with tribes," Anderson said. "There, state and local governments would have ultimate authority over decisions affecting tribal economic development and self-governance activities unless there were a means for Indian tribes to require states to negotiate on the issue."

Potawatomi Chairwoman Mamie Rupnicki sees the bill as a threat to tribal sovereignty. "It's an ongoing process, get rid of the Indians, make them not a working government. They talk about the Jews and their Holocaust, constantly. My thing is that tribes are still card carriers. We have numbers, we go by numbers, we live by numbers."

Rupnicki is fighting hard to see H.R. 1814 defeated. Asked how long states have had the right to tax trust land, Rupnicki said, "Never. That's how come a lot of the land was lost, because BIA sat on it's a- and did nothing and the land was lost."

Rupnicki said she hopes that once tribes and tribal members realize the danger of H.R. 1814, they will begin contacting their representatives. She urges everyone in Indian country to take a stand against the bill.

"They need to get resolutions in. They need to get letters in and they need to speak to their representatives in Congress and tell them it is a bad law. Do we want to talk about anal retention? These people write legislation and the majority of them don't even understand what they're trying to do, especially those that don't have any tribes in their states. They have no idea."

Susan Masten, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said she also believes the bill will be detrimental to tribal governments. In a telephone interview Masten said, "Obviously we would not be supportive of any such measure. It is exactly what happened to us in previous times when people put our land into tax status and we lost it. We would not be supportive and we will be actively opposing it."

The proposed legislation is sponsored by Rep. Peter Visclosky, R-Ind., and Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., R-Okla., and 20 other members of the House.

"This is an issue the congressman has been dealing with for a number of years that he thinks needs to be addressed," said Micah Swafford, an Istook spokesman.

"We had several different approaches to the problem. We've been working on this for quite a while," he added. "Originally, our first bill would was more about putting land into trust. It would have declared that tribes that wanted to put new land into trust would have to enter into compacts with state and local governments regarding the charging of sales tax on certain goods. It did not affect any lands currently in trust, just putting new lands into trust.

"That wasn't successful. Then we tried a new approach, H.R. 1814. Some tribes complained that the original bill assumed that they were acting criminally. You know the Supreme Court has ruled that sales taxes are due on purchases to non-tribal members. So the question is how to collect those sale taxes, they weren't being collected which is against the law."

Swafford said tribes complained this assumed they were or would break the law. "So the new solution was, if it is shown to the attorney general or state and local officials tribes are breaking the law, they would then have the authority to draw to the federal government's attention that Indian tribes were violating the law, then they could take that land out of trust."

Swafford also said that compacts required with states would be win-win situations for all involved and that tribes would get 10 percent of the state taxes collected, returned to them.

"We get 10 percent? Boy, aren't they generous," said Tony Choate in the media relations office of the Chickasaw Nation. He went on to say that when Istook delivered a keynote speech at the Tribal Leaders Symposium in Oklahoma City, his main point was that American Indians need to get rid of the blight of dependency on the federal government.

"I wondered if he had ever read a history book in his life," Choate said. "My God. Do you know the government could pay us ten times what they are paying us for a thousand years and never possibly pay us back for everything they stole from us."

Other tribes that were contacted in Oklahoma oppose H.R. 1814.

"Well I think in the past it hasn't been a serious threat, so there hasn't been a serious opposition mounted," said Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith. "It has been buried in past Congresses. Part of the opposition is the political astuteness of the tribes, knowing that it doesn't deserve a response at the present time, but we are opposed to it. I know we have sent papers in the past on our opposition."

Many Oklahoma tribes appeared to be surprised that the bill has found a second life after being defeated a few years ago.

Spokesmen in the offices of Republican Representatives Tom Coburn and Steve Largent said the congressmen were supporting the bill in the spirit of fairness and competition.

What if the H.R. 1814 is passed? Rupnicki said simply, "We'll be state ruled again. You know the old Indian thing of staking yourself out? Now is the time to stake yourself out. This is a very dangerous piece of legislation."