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Lawsuits, bills, authors and in-fighting

Legislation and a lawsuit are the headline-making gaming issues in Indian country this week. On March 25, a federal judge ordered Detroit officials to justify his extension of the operating licenses of the city's three non-Indian casinos. Those licenses were set to expire on March 29.

Judge Robert Holmes Bell's order is the latest development in a 1997 lawsuit filed against the city by the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. In the complaint, the band alleged unconstitutionality in Detroit's award of casino licenses to certain developers whose financial backing supported a pro-casino campaign. Voters in Michigan approved a measure to establish the casinos in 1996.

The judge's ruling comes in the wake of a ruling by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overturning his original handling of the tribe's action; Bell threw out the tribe's suit in 1997. On appeal, the 6th Circuit decreed Detroit's casino ordinance unconstitutional, the three casino licenses void, and the band entitled to relief.

According to the Detroit News, the three casinos have paid approximately $95 million this fiscal year in gaming fees to the city and employed 7,500 people. Last fiscal year, the News said, they pumped $73 million into the city's vaults.

City attorneys will present their case at a May 1 hearing in Grand Rapids.

In response to the latest Congressional effort to curb Internet gaming, two major gaming trade groups have called for evenhanded legislation. The National Indian Gaming Association, for one, has remained on top of the issue.

"We testified before the House Financial Services Committee last summer," said John Harte, NIGA's general counsel, in a recent interview. "Our policy hasn't really changed. If Congress decides to do a nationwide prohibition on Internet gaming, we're fine with that. But over the past four or five years, every time they introduce legislation that says it's going to prohibit [online gaming], it ends up providing carve-outs."

By carve-outs, Harte meant that exceptions are created for various gaming sectors, such as pari-mutuel wagering at horse and dog tracks, jai alai and even fantasy football. Legislators create "all these exceptions and tribes are usually left out. That's where we are with the current legislation," Harte said.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., introduced the bill, H.R. 3215, last Nov. 1. It currently awaits mark-up by the House Judiciary Committee. Harte told ICT that the work on the bill should resume after Easter.

"Before they went on recess it looked like it was going to move on the fast-track. It was scheduled for tentative mark up last Wednesday [March 20] but they pushed it back because a lot of people complained that it was going too fast and they didn't get a chance to weigh in," Harte said.

Goodlatte, in a March 25 AP report, said that he is committed to enabling all sectors of the gaming industry to compete on equal footing.

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"Everybody wants to get a leg up on the their competition," he told the AP. "We've been very careful not to let that happen."

In a position statement on its web site, the American Gaming Association, which represents commercial casinos, also called for sector parity. Gaming legislation "must not create competitive advantages or disadvantages between and among commercial casinos, Native American casinos, state lotteries and pari-mutuel wagering operations."

The front pages in New England remain chock full of Indian gaming action. Legislators in both Maine and Rhode Island are on the verge of authorizing studies on the plethora of potential economic and social effects of casinos in their respective states, while anti-gaming elements in Connecticut continue to voice their opposition to further casinos there and elsewhere.

Maine's governor, Independent Angus S. King Jr., has vowed to veto any pro-gaming measures, but will leave office next year.

Town officials in Kittery, site of a casino proposed by the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Tribes, have placed a non-binding gaming referendum on the ballot for the June 11 primary election to gauge public support. Opposition in Kittery and nearby towns in both Maine and New Hampshire appears to be coalescing under the umbrella of an anti-gaming faction called Casinos No!.

The anti-casino movement in Maine scored big when prominent author Jeff Benedict agreed to campaign against the proposed Kittery casino. Benedict's controversial book Without Reservation examines the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe's re-emergence from near extinction and the process by which its Connecticut casino, Foxwoods, became the world's largest.

Benedict, who plans to visit Kittery in mid-April, is currently campaigning for Congress in Connecticut.

Unlike the cooperation between the two Maine tribes in their quest for a casino, competition for casino dollars has pitted tribes in other states against each other.

Though the nation's smallest state, Rhode Island could make room enough within its borders for a casino. That state's government, however, has no room for a recently fired official for alleged improper contact with a gaming company, Harrah's Entertainment, trying to gain a foothold there.

The Narragansett Indian Tribe has allied with Boyd Gaming Corp. in proposing a casino for the town of West Warwick. In addition to jobs, the parties tout potential relief for residents from the town's high tax rates.

The Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe and the Pokanoket/Wampanoag Federation have both echoed the Legislature's calls for a state-sponsored commission to study the matter. According to a March 26 report in the Kent County (R.I.) Times, the two Wampanoag groups assert that their history and presence in the state should enable them to compete equally for rights to a casino.

A battle also appears to be brewing out on the West Coast. The Confederated Tribes of both Grand Ronde and Warm Springs disagree over the latter's proposal for a casino along the Oregon's Hood River. Warm Springs leaders seek a suitable site so as to tap into the Portland market, while the Grand Rondes fear an escalating "arms race" with tribes coveting and competing for choice locations. Each tribe already operates a casino in the state.