Skip to main content

Montana lawmakers struggle with gaming compacts bill

  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

HELENA, Mont. - Montana tribal leaders are scrambling to revive a
legislative bill that would codify procedures for negotiating tribal gaming
compacts.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer, was attacked by
religious and anti-gambling groups at a Jan. 27 hearing before the Montana
House Judiciary Committee. A few days later, the panel voted 11 - 7 to
table the measure, which had been requested by the Montana Department of
Justice.

Opponents of the bill are convinced it will expand gambling across the
state. Some of the foes questioned whether tribes know what they're doing.

"I'm not so sure they are cognizant of the extreme ravaging that would
occur among their own people if this were to come in," Harris Himes,
president of the conservative Montana Family Coalition, testified at the
hearing. "This is like throwing gasoline on a burning fire as far as the
Indian population is concerned."

Bixby said her bill would merely create a "clear and legally defensible
process" for state-tribal negotiations conducted under the federal 1988
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). Her proposal is also designed to
replace the state's Cooperative Agreements Act as the main vehicle for
conducting IGRA talks.

"This legislation does not expand gaming," Bixby emphasized.

Contrary to the arguments of some opponents, state-tribal gambling
agreements are nothing new in Montana: they've already been negotiated for
the Fort Belknap, Rocky Boy's, Flathead, Crow and Northern Cheyenne
reservations.

A primary goal of the bill, supporters said, is to prevent future conflicts
between the Legislature and the governor over which entity has jurisdiction
over the negotiation process and the specific terms of an agreement.

"We don't want to end up in litigation," said Terryl Matt, an attorney for
the Blackfeet Tribe. "We'd like to address this problem now."

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Gene Huntington, administrator of the Justice Department's Gambling Control
Division, explained that under IGRA, state governments must negotiate in
good faith when tribes want Class III gaming activities within their
reservations.

Bixby's bill says the governor and the executive branch have the legal
authority to "negotiate and execute" Class III gaming compacts - including
conditions of play - with federally recognized Montana tribes. Conditions
of play include hours of operation, prize and payout limits, the number of
gaming devices in establishments and other similar rules.

The bill authorizes the governor to make decisions on conditions of play
even if they are "significantly different from those established by law."
However, the governor could not approve any type of gaming that is not
already permitted.

Eric Stern, senior counsel to Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, said his
boss supports the bill only on the premise that it doesn't expand the scope
of gambling. Stern told the committee that Schweitzer is against adding
more types of gaming in the state "either on or off the reservation."

But gambling opponents told lawmakers that the bill appears to be a power
grab by the executive branch. Himes also alleged that the measure is
unconstitutional.

The foes cited a litany of social ills and statistics they said makes any
type of gambling an unwise choice of revenue generation for governments.
And using gaming as a tribal economic development tool and to fund social
services programs will only cause more problems on reservations, they
claimed.

"This bill would be like shooting our Native American friends," said Dallas
Erickson, head of Montana Citizens for Decency Through Law.

A general lack of understanding about Indian gaming, the outcry from
anti-gambling groups, and Republican misgivings about giving
previously-unstated powers to a Democratic governor all appear to have led
to the measure's tabling. In response, tribal leaders met last week in
Great Falls to discuss strategies for getting it pried loose.

According to Bixby, potential amendments are being drafted, as well as
educational materials to help lawmakers better understand the issues.

"It isn't over yet," she said.