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Let the Games Begin: Fiscal responsibility in Indian country

With the growth of Indian gaming, many tribes are now collecting and handling revenue in amounts unprecedented just a few years ago. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, of course, earmarks the bulk of these funds for tribal governmental purposes. The result has been a general strengthening of tribal governments and economies, bringing an expansion of governmental services as well as greater employment opportunity for tribal members and neighbors alike.

A secondary and just as welcome result has been the development of an ever-growing sense of fiscal responsibility. This is not to say that tribal governments in the pre-IGRA days were as a whole financially irresponsible. But the dramatic influx of cash has forced tribal governments and members to look beyond the immediate appearance of wealth that gaming profits can represent. Given the harsh spotlight often cast on Indian gaming by its detractors, this is most certainly a positive trend.

Members of the Tulalip tribes of Washington state, which count 3,460 enrolled members in their ranks, voted that the tribal government not make $10,000-per-person payments from this year's casino revenues. Tribal voters did, however, approve the addition of $1,000 to the tribe's annual members' checks of $2,000, to be distributed in November. Balloting took place on Oct. 25 at the Tulalips' semi-annual general council meeting.

Tribal officials opposed to per capita payments say that sufficient funds might not be available to fund current tribal programs or pay cost-of-living raises to casino employees. Other projects threatened include construction of a tribal school and a museum, youth programs and a highway overpass. Some tribal members reportedly believe that the reacquisition of ancestral land and the paying off of debt both represent a better use of money than do per capita payments.

According to the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), of the 201 tribes that participate in Class II or III gaming, three-quarters of them make no per capita payments to members from gaming revenues. This leaves 73 tribes, including the Tulalips that do make such payments to their members under a "revenue allocation plan."

All tribal government services, economic and community development projects, tribal welfare programs, charitable donations and any aid to local governments must be provided for prior to creation of a revenue allocation plan. Final approval authority of any revenue allocation plan lies with the Interior Secretary. Tribal members must pay federal taxes on any funds received under such plan.

Tulalip generosity, however, does not stop at the edge of Indian country. According to the Associated Press, the tribe has since June donated more than $2.5 million to local charities and nonprofit service organizations.

These recent donations include $1 million to the Snohomish County Boys and Girls Club, $85,000 to the Tulalip Elementary School, $60,000 to NIGA, and smaller gifts to the Snohomish County Children's Museum, the African American Cultural Center and the Seattle Indian Health Board.

Putting money directly into members' pockets can be quite tempting. But by taking the longer view - by putting those funds to use for the tribe as a whole and to help the surrounding community - the Tulalips are looking ahead, a policy makes much more sense in the long run than instant cash. Hats off to the Tulalips for both their fiscal responsibility and for their generosity. Other tribes have and will continue to follow suit.

Spending shared revenue

Since its New Year's Eve debut, the Seneca Nation's Seneca-Niagara Casino has been an unqualified success. It has drawn tens of thousands of visitors to the depressed city of Niagara Falls and has created a lucrative revenue stream for the Nation. This year, compact provisions in the 14-year compact require payment to the state of 18 percent of the casino's slot machine revenue - Niagara Falls gets 6.25 percent of this pie.

While any final decisions are up to city officials, they are wisely giving residents the opportunity to provide input on how this money should be spent. A pair of New York state lawmakers will hold two public hearings in Niagara Falls to solicit input and ideas. State Senator Byron W. Brown of Buffalo/Niagara Falls and Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte of Lewiston, both Democrats, are taking comment on how the funds, which estimates have pegged at between $9 million and $13 million for the casino's first year of operation, should be applied.

Some local officials have said the casino money should be used to fund day-to-day city functions, like payroll and street repairs, things normally paid for with tax money. Others insist that the funds should be earmarked for specific economic development projects - simply handing over money to the city with no guidance or mandate on how to spend it is a recipe for misuse and mismanagement, they say.

The state's take, estimated at between $40 million and $50 million, will go into its general fund. Some of these funds are supposed to be used for off-reservation economic development in Western New York, a region hit hard of late by loss of manufacturing jobs.

DelMonte is a voting member of the Niagara Falls Casino Community Accommodation Commission; Brown is one of two non-voting commissioners. The Commission, created to oversee the distribution of casino revenues, has five voting members, three of which are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. The other two voters are the mayor of Niagara Falls and the chairman of that city's council.

The public meetings will be held on Nov. 20 and Dec. 2 in Niagara Falls. The full commission is slated to meet in December.

Wildfires force casino evacuation

The massive wildfires raging in Southern California prompted the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians to evacuate both its casino/bingo hall and reservation on Oct. 25. A posting on the tribe's Web site said that the facility was to reopen to the public at noon on Oct. 27.

The tribe's mountainous 740-acre reservation was established in 1891 and is named for Santos Manuel, a former tribal leader. It located in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, north of the city of Highland.