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Let the games begin Gaming news updates from both coasts

Editors’ note: “Let the Games Begin” returns after an extended hiatus. This week, Tom Wanamaker will catch up on Indian gaming news from opposite ends of the United States.

New York state

The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma has not given up on gaming in New York. Tribal Chief Paul Spicer has proposed a Class III casino for the upstate city of Auburn, according to the June 10 edition of the (Syracuse) Post-Standard. The Oklahoma tribe continues its quest to build public support for ventures that have minimal if any chance of ever happening.

In a letter to Auburn’s mayor, Spicer said that in return for a casino in the city, the Seneca-Cayugas would make a payment in lieu of taxes of $4 million to the city in the first year of the casino’s operation. The Post-Standard reported that the annual payment would increase to $8 million after six years; after 15 years, the casino would be subject to local taxation at its assessed value.

The tribe would also collect state sales taxes, sign a limited waiver of sovereign immunity, and extinguish all land claims against the state, the paper said. The casino would employ an estimated 2,200 people.

But reality casts considerable doubt on the likelihood of this proposal ever getting off the drawing board. Last year, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the Cayuga land claim, to which the Seneca-Cayugas (along with the Cayuga Nation of New York) were a party. The Supreme Court recently refused to hear the tribes’ appeal. On top of that, Auburn lies outside the 64,000-acre land claim area. Given the congressional clamor against off-reservation casinos, it is difficult to see how this venture would ever gain approval.

Furthermore, the tribe would have to negotiate a gaming compact, another highly unlikely prospect. Gov. George Pataki, an ostensible supporter of Indian gaming, leaves office at the end of this year. His likely replacement, Democrat Eliot Spitzer, made his name fighting corruption on Wall Street and is a largely unknown quantity when it comes to Indian issues. Whether he or Republican candidate John Faso will be inclined to negotiate on a government-to-government basis with in-state tribes, much less one from Oklahoma, remains a mystery.

New York tribes have for years staunchly resisted Albany’s attempts to impose its taxes on tribal business enterprises. The willingness of the Seneca-Cayugas to waive sovereign immunity and to collect state taxes serves only to undermine the ardent stance taken by their New York cousins to protect and uphold Indian sovereignty.

Rhode Island

The legislature in the nation’s smallest state has approved a constitutional amendment to give voters a voice in whether the Narragansett Indian Tribe can build a casino.

The Associated Press reported on June 2 that “casino supporters see the amendment as a way to combat opposition from Gov. Donald Carcieri and the Rhode Island Supreme Court.” Carcieri, long a critic of tribal business ventures, cannot veto the amendment, which goes before voters in November. The state Supreme Court has twice ruled that the state would not have enough control over a tribally owned casino, the AP said.

The Narragansetts have partnered with Las Vegas-based casino operator Harrah’s Entertainment to build a Class III casino in West Warwick. If voters approve the proposal, Harrah’s would pay a $100 million licensing fee to the state and would pay “at least $144 million in gaming taxes after the casino’s third year of operation,” the AP reported.

Carcieri, of course, was behind the July 2003 raid by the Rhode Island State Police of a smoke shop on Narragansett territory – an egregious and outrageous violation of tribal sovereignty. If the Ocean State’s voters give their OK to a Narragansett casino, Carcieri will have to think creatively if he intends to continue tossing monkey wrenches into tribal attempts at economic development.

Oregon

A battle over Indian casino sites is brewing in Oregon. On June 9, the Oregonian reported that the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde recently offered to finance a casino for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The offer, however, comes with a catch – the casino must be on the Warm Springs reservation in Central Oregon.

Warm Springs has run its Kah-Nee-Ta High Desert Resort and Casino on the reservation since 1996. According to the tribal Web site (www.warmsprings.com), the tribe funded this 25,000-square-foot, $6 million facility with its own money and manages the operation “without outside consultation.”

Warm Springs and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski agreed to close down the Kah-Nee-Ta casino in exchange for one at Cascade Locks, some 40 miles east of Portland. Oregon would get at least 15 percent of the new casino’s revenue, the Oregonian reported.

The Grand Ronde, whose Spirit Mountain Casino sits on its reservation approximately 80 miles southwest of Portland, objected to the Cascade Locks deal. The Oregonian said that Grande Ronde fears competition will erode its ability to draw visitors from Portland, the state’s largest metropolitan area.

According to mapquest.com, Spirit Mountain and Cascade Locks are approximately 125 miles apart. Yes, Cascade Locks is closer by half the distance to Portland than is Spirit Mountain. But with more than 533,000 residents and a median household income of more than $40,000 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau), it seems safe to say that Portland and the surrounding area can support both casinos.

The question is raised, however – how close is too close? At what point do Indian casinos pull business away from each other? Given the diverse geography and population density of the United States, the answer will depend on where you are. But there certainly ought to be room for all the tribes that desire to take a shot at economic development through gaming.

California

Indian casinos continue to drive the gaming industry in California. Reuters recently reported that tribally owned gaming operations pulled in $5.78 million in revenue in 2004, according to a recent study on the economic effects of gambling in the Golden State. This compares to more than $4 billion in horse-race betting and almost $3 million in state lottery revenues, the report said.

Of California’s 108 federally recognized Indian tribes, 66 currently operate gaming facilities. Another 67 groups of California Indians have active petitions for recognition pending at BIA, the study said. Non-Indians comprise 90 percent of casino employees in the state. Gaming costs California an estimated $1 billion, stemming from such things as “crime, unpaid debts and bankruptcy, mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment and public assistance,” the Reuters report said.

The study came at the behest of state Attorney General Bill Lockyer in an effort to gauge the “economic effects and social costs and benefits” of gaming in California, Reuters reported.