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Indian Commission vote victim of anti-casino legislators

HARTFORD, Conn. - A bill to create a Commission on Native American Affairs was called to the state Senate floor for a vote on the last night of the legislative session, then was withdrawn and disappeared without a trace.

The bill, called ''An Act Concerning a Commission on Native American Indian Affairs,'' was approved by a hefty 124 - 22 in the House of Representatives June 5 and was expected to pass a Senate vote the next day when the legislative session was mandated to end at midnight.

''Around 9 p.m., they actually called the bill and were just about to take it up, and something happened where they just changed their minds,'' said state Rep. Brendan Sharkey, a Democrat who sponsored and introduced the bill last January. ''They withdrew the bill and moved down to the next bill. I don't know what happened to it. I haven't gotten an explanation from the Senate leadership yet.''

Sharkey's proposal would create an independent Commission on Indian Affairs to replace the Connecticut Indian Affairs Council, which was formed in the 1970s but hasn't met since the early 1990s.

The commission would advocate for the state's 50,000 Native residents, act as a central clearinghouse for information, cultural events and resources, and help preserve sacred sites and artifacts.

Sharkey hoped the commission would also help repair the state's ''dysfunctional'' relationship with the Eastern Pequots, the Golden Hill Paugussetts and the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation - a relationship shattered by the elected officials' fierce opposition to the tribes' quests for federal acknowledgement that would allow them to open casinos.

So why did the commission bill get bumped?

It fell victim to the state's opposition to federal recognition and more casinos, according to Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a Democrat, who had the power to call the bill to a vote, or not.

''There was quite a lot of support for it. I was certainly a supporter of the bill. I was working with Rep. Sharkey on it, but a number of senators were concerned that the creation of a commission would make it more likely that Native American tribes would secure federal recognition that might result in an expansion of casinos gambling. That was really the issue that came up,'' Looney told Indian Country Today. In addition, an amendment was offered that would have required a lengthy debate and time was running out, Looney said.

He could not recall who asked to have the bill withdrawn.

Sharkey's final version of the bill showed no fiscal impact; the resources of the office of Indian Affairs coordinator in the Department of Environmental Protection would simply be shifted to the commission.

But on the last day of the session, Republican Sen. David Cappiello added an amendment that specified the commission would not engage in the question of gaming in Connecticut.

When asked if he knew that federal laws would preclude a commission from having any weight in a decision either for or against federal recognition or the establishment of casinos, Cappiello said he is anxious about casino expansion and wanted assurance that the commission ''would not be used for such a purpose.''

Cappiello said he does not object to a commission.

''On the contrary, I think it is a very good idea and would have supported the underlying bill. Frankly, even if the bill was brought up for a vote in the Senate and my amendment failed, I still would have supported the underlying bill,'' Cappiello said.

He represents four towns that intervened in the STN's petition for federal recognition, which was approved, then rescinded, and is now in appeal.

''I would have to say that [the towns' opposition] weighed heavily on my mind when deciding to draft my amendment, although no one locally asked me to propose it. I simply wanted a reassurance that the commission would not promote casino gaming in Connecticut,'' Cappiello said.

Sharkey said he was pleased and surprised by the amount of support his bill garnered and he will ''absolutely'' introduce it again at the next session.

''Everything is all set for next year and even if we agreed to the language on the amendment, presumably, it would be a no-brainer,'' Sharkey said. ''But then again ...''