IGRA reforms go to full Senate

WASHINGTON – The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs voted by voice March 29 to send a bill amending the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act out of committee to the full Senate, a move long resisted by many tribes because it opens IGRA to further unforeseen amendments on the Senate floor.

Under IGRA, tribal gaming activities have become almost a $20 billion industry annually, generating revenue streams throughout Indian country and empowering some tribes to become leading employers and models of enterprise in their counties and states. Many tribes that have not become wealthy through gaming have still been able to leverage jobs and revenues into significant improvements in living standards and economic prosperity.

Many tribes put up a resistance to the tenets of Senate bill 2078, sponsored by committee chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. S. 2078 authorizes the National Indian Gaming Commission to regulate gaming contracts, though McCain has narrowed the scope of oversight in response to concerns that it could prove cumbersome to the conduct of daily business. The NIGC will also oversee Class III gaming (where the majority of casino profits are found) if the bill becomes law, despite a district court decision to the contrary. Many tribes consider the provisions an incursion on tribal sovereignty.

In another apparent stand-down from a stronger position, the bill would close the door on far-flung off-reservation gaming initiatives while establishing a process for landless and recently recognized tribes to acquire land for gaming purposes in their ancestral areas. The process would include a consideration of gaming impact-mitigation measures, most probably meaning tribal payments to local communities.

The committee considered an amendment by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, that would have permitted tribes to sue states that refuse to negotiate with tribes on a gaming compact, as required by IGRA. A court decision known in Indian country as the “Seminole decision” (Seminole Tribe v. Florida) foreclosed that option, IGRA notwithstanding. Inouye’s “Seminole fix” amendment failed when a roll-call vote deadlocked at 6 for and 6 against.

Two other amendments won the committee’s approval: one requiring tribes to inform tribal citizens of casino profits and the other extending to mid-April the deadline for gaming-lands applications under the Interior Department’s two-part determination test. The Interior test, requiring Interior findings that tribes will benefit from an off-reservation casino without detriment to the surrounding community, has come under withering criticism in Congress as an inducement to “reservation shopping,” the practice of searching far and wide for off-reservation casino lands that are more lucrative than reservation-based sites.

McCain and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the committee vice chairman, have regularly insisted that Indian gaming at large will benefit from tighter regulation. But in the House of Representatives, Republican Rep. Richard Pombo, chairman of the Resources Committee, facing a contestable re-election this year in California, one of the magnet states for reservation shopping, has made it clear that his interest in amending IGRA is to end reservation shopping.