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Let the Games Begin: Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Carolina

This week, we'll look briefly at recent Indian gaming-related developments in three states - Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Carolina - which have not received much attention in this space of late.

Minnesota

Recently, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota became the latest state politician looking to pressure Indian tribes into renegotiating their gaming compacts. In a Feb. 6 radio interview, Pawlenty expressed a "need to say what are the parameters for the future - the long term for gaming."

"We need to explore a better deal for Minnesotans and that's what we're going to do," he said. "We want to send a message that the status quo needs to change."

The governor proposes that the state would authorize new gaming facilities and new types of games, in return for a cut of the action. He also suggested that in return for a continued monopoly on gaming in Minnesota, the tribes would share a percentage of their gaming revenue with the state.

Currently, 11 Minnesota tribes participate in gaming under compacts negotiated in 1989 and 1990. The state agreed to compacts with no set expiration, which initially allowed the tribes to secure long-term financing to establish their gaming operations. In return, the tribes agreed to limit their gaming offerings to only video slot machines and blackjack. A key provision in the compacts says that they cannot be renegotiated unless both parties agree.

The tribes, who operate 18 casinos in the Gopher state, currently make no payments to the state, other than to cover regulatory expenses. Their economic contributions to the state are listed on the Web site of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, www.mnindiangaming.com.

In response to Pawlenty's suggestions, the tribes said that they would not renegotiate the compacts, nor would they consider any new deal that reduced revenues earmarked for tribal needs, revenues created by IGRA. According to the Associated Press, the tribes insisted that any changes in the compacts would have to confer some specific benefit to the tribes as well as protect them from commercial competition.

Is this another Schwarzenegger-esque attempt by a state to tap into funds meant for Indians? By going public and letting the issue "percolate" as he put it, is Pawlenty trying to build grassroots support for forced negotiations? The Minnesota tribes have no real incentive to negotiate unless Pawlenty gives them one; it will be interesting to see what he might offer.

As more and more states seek a piece of the Indian gaming pie, some in Indian country might begin to wonder how state politicians ever got by without Indian gaming revenue!

Wisconsin

Voters in Dane County, Wis. head to the polls on Feb. 17 to cast ballots in a non-binding referendum on Indian gaming. Specifically, the Ho-Chunk Nation is proposing to convert its Class II DeJope Bingo & Entertainment hall in Madison to a full-fledged Class III facility.

The City of Madison and Dane County would receive some $91 million in casino revenue from the Ho-Chunk over the 13-year life of the deal, if it becomes reality. The funds would be applied to relieve local property taxes as well as to human service programs for the elderly and disabled.

Opponents bemoan the usual and largely-unfounded concerns of crime and corruption, arguing that a casino located so close to a university will create tens of thousands of problem gamblers. But such gambling addicts comprise only 1 percent of the populace and besides, college students are adults capable of making their own choices. The last thing they need is to be sheltered.

Opponents, according to a Feb. 8 Associated Press report, also absurdly insist that $91 million will provide "little tax relief" which is akin to saying and believing that O.J. didn't do it.

In a welcome change from the way governors have pointedly and specifically denounced Indian gaming, Governor Jim Doyle, the man who will ultimately approve or deny the deal, has not revealed how he will vote. Doyle, a Democrat, has only said that he would follow the dictates of the non-binding balloting.

Hats off to Doyle for allowing the local residents to decide on the casino and for not trying to influence the process by revealing his stance. Several Indian casinos have opened in Wisconsin since 1991 (the state now has 19) making Wisconsinites familiar enough with Indian gaming to hopefully make intelligent decisions.

The Ho-Chunk, of course, hope they make the right one.

South Carolina

Debate continues to rage in the Palmetto state over the Catawba Nation's gaming rights. Despite a pair of previous legal opinions concluding that the nation could legally offer video poker games on reservation land, a third has emerged claiming the tribe has no such rights.

In 2000, Columbia attorney Richard Gergel argued the state's case in a landmark Supreme Court case that snuffed out the video poker industry in South Carolina, a business that had generated $3 billion annually. On Feb. 7, the AP reported that he's back with a four-page brief claiming that "a review of controlling law ... demonstrates that the Catawbas have no greater right to operate video gambling devices than any other persons or entities in the state."

Yet two separate legal analyses - one prepared by the Judiciary Committee of the State Senate, the other by a noted expert on Constitutional law - took the opposite stance. Both concluded that the Catawba Nation would prevail in any legal actions involving rights to operate video poker machines.

The Catawbas, who already have a bingo hall at their Rock Hill reservation, are looking to open a 700 to 1,000-seat off-reservation bingo hall at Santee. If this is not permitted, they have announced their intent to add video poker to their offerings at Rock Hill.

According to the 1993 Catawba Land Claims Settlement Act, "If the reservation is located in a county or counties which prohibit the devices pursuant to state law, the tribe nonetheless must be permitted to operate the devices on the reservation if the governing body of the tribe so authorizes."

Although it's hard to imagine language any clearer than this, it is certain that anti-gaming bible thumpers in South Carolina will continue to fight the Catawba Nation's economic development.