Nebraska tribes hope for legal gaming at home

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LINCOLN, Neb. - Nebraska lawmakers have hedged for years on approving Class III gaming for the state's four American Indian tribes but this year could be different.

A collection of bills to legalize gambling is under consideration in the state's unicameral legislature. Hearings will take place in early February.

The bills might succeed where past attempts to bring a referendum vote to the people have failed.

Sen. DiAnne Schimek of Lincoln, who has introduced the referendum legislation before, this year has followed up with more than one bill. The measures would allow for up to 13 casinos, five at racetracks and eight on American Indian reservations. They also provide for a six-mile gambling border zone and a two-mile border zone.

Schimek said she wants the tribes to know that someone in Lincoln, the state's capital, is thinking about their problem and willing to help.

Most of the bills propose that revenues from gaming go to the state, with some used to promote tourism. Tribes would have to enter into compacts with the state to hammer out the details of the gaming operations and revenues. But as of this date, say tribal officials, the state has not entered into compact negotiations in good faith as required by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

One proposal would allow slot machines to be placed in bars across the state. Schimek has said she would offer a constitutional amendment that would allow for restricted tribal gaming in place of the across-the-state bar slot machines.

The gambling border zones would allow communities next to other states to offer gaming. Nebraska is bordered by South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas, and specific areas of Colorado allow limited gambling. Nebraska residents travel by bus and other transportation to play in casinos in South Dakota owned by the Yankton Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Nation of Pine Ridge. In Iowa, the Winnebago and Omaha Tribes operate casinos just across the border. Those two tribes have tribal headquarters in Nebraska.

The state of Nebraska does not allow for Class III, or Las Vegas-type gaming in its constitution, but tribal leaders argue that the state has allowed such gaming by looking the other way. It has allowed fraternal organization gambling, pickle cards, Keno and horse and dog racing for years.

Six years ago, the small Santee Sioux Tribe opened the Ohiya Casino in a closed caf?, operated a few slot machines, served food and employed 23 people on a reservation with an 80 percent unemployment rate.

The state government objected and asked the federal government to get involved. Finally the U.S. District Court declared the casino illegal and fined the tribe $6,000 per day and then seized its various bank accounts.

The casino stayed open, as a defiant tribal council faced criminal charges and jail time so that people would have jobs. In the meantime, towns surrounding the Santee Reservation in northeastern Nebraska were praising the casino for bringing in some additional business.

The Santee are waiting for the final shoe to drop by way of a ruling from the Secretary of the Interior that is provided for in IGRA when good faith tribal efforts to negotiate a Class III gaming compact with a state have failed. This rule has never been invoked, but Thelma Thomas, tribal councilwoman and manager of the Ohiya Casino said they are expecting this to happen. Interior has not given an indication that Secretary Gale Norton will impose this rule.

Meanwhile, the state of Nebraska wrestles with the gaming issue in a more concerted effort than ever. The number of bills and variety of plans is the broadest yet presented.

Opposition is evident. Some people take the moral ground of opposing gaming in any form. One legislator, Sen. Adrian Smith of Gering, questions whether an illegal activity should be legalized solely for the purpose of providing revenue for the state.