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Nebraska tribes plan legislative strategies

LINCOLN, Neb. - State senators have begun working with the tribes to reintroduce a bill allowing tribal casino-style gaming to be placed on a ballot for Nebraska voters to decide in 2002.

Leaders from Nebraska's four tribes and two state legislators began working out strategies for the introduction of the bill Nov. 28, hoping the turnover in the Unicameral Legislature and stronger lobbying efforts will allow it to pass.

Sen. DiAnna Schemik of Lincoln looks upon Indian gaming as a sovereignty issue and added that gaming would be confined to reservation boundaries and tribal trust lands.

The senator said she was bitterly disappointed that the measure was stalled last year and told tribal representatives legislators didn't allow enough time to adequately debate the issue. The measure fell two votes short of reaching the floor.

"They didn't actually kill the bill. We have a pretty strong committee system. Most people trust the committees to do their job. It only failed by two votes to pull it from committee," she said.

"One of them who didn't vote for it has already told us he would. I think we need to keep educating.

"Sometimes we have to realize these things take time. You just have to be persistent. I really want to hear from you if there is a different kind of approach. This has to be your effort as well," Schemik told the more than two dozen tribal representatives at the meeting.

Immediately at stake is the Santee Sioux Tribe's Ohiya Casino. The casino, which earns $1 million annually, has amassed a debt of more than $3 million as a result of fines at a rate of $3,000 to $6,000 per day.

The fines have piled up over the course of nearly two years since they were imposed for non-compliance with court orders to shut down because Nebraska's state law prohibits casino-style gaming.

The tribe has been entangled in court battles since shortly after the casino opened nearly five years ago. The U.S. attorney froze the tribe's bank accounts and placed a lien against trust property to recover the fines. The tribe continues to hide its gaming revenue and operates on a cash basis when paying its 23 employees.

"It's good to see this many people here, the tribes are well represented. I think we can get this passed. I really believe a lot of the senators don't know where we are coming from. I was really appalled by some of their comments that were made and some of their sources out there," said Vince Bass of the Winnebago Tribe.

"This isn't tribal gaming this is tribal government gaming. They need to understand that this isn't going into our pockets, it is going into programs," he said.

Arthur "Butch" Denny, former Santee chairman, worked with several people last year on the previous bill.

"I wish at that time we could have had more representation here. We could have gotten the word out to our own people of what gaming would do," he said.

"They talk about Indian gaming is unregulated. That's untrue. They don't talk about the people in Nebraska enjoying a 2.5 percent unemployment rate and don't talk about 75 percent unemployment rate on the Indian reservations. With this collective effort, it can't help but pass," Denny said.

The former chairman said he is hoping the support shown by other tribes will change the outcome this year. "I think with a lot of hard work and dedication we can really make a difference for our people in Nebraska."

"It was a disappointing outcome last year. As Indian tribes and tribal nations, we have this right," said James LaPointe of the Ponca Tribe.

Tribal leaders said Nebraskans have supported the tribes' right to establish gaming on their lands, but legislators have been reluctant to allow the voters to choose.

Schemik suggested a second bill, modeled after one in Kansas, that would establish the structure for state and tribal compacts, but tribal leaders were wary of being too specific about any move to regulate compacts.

"When you establish a compact, that sets out the state portion for permanent gambling dollars and regulations for so many machines. I would imagine that would all have to be set out in that trailer bill," Sen. Ray Janssen of Nickerson said.

"I think it is more a broad outline to guide those negations, not necessarily specifics. It could be modified or amended during the course of committees, debate or on the floor," Schemik said.

Denny said including state taxing authority wouldn't be legal under federal law. "I don't think you can legally put the word tax in that. You can't legally tax it."

He said another proposal to tax Indian gaming by a Southwestern state by 16 percent was inappropriate. "That's a direct blow to tribal sovereignty.

"If we're going to bring all these things to the table, it is something we have to agree on," Denny said.

Winnebago Chairman John Black Hawk used the age limit for those allowed to gamble at his tribe's Iowa casino as an example. While the state wanted to set the age limit, the tribe exercised its right to regulate who is allowed to gamble and set the age limit. He warned tribal leaders to be careful about what they might give up.

He said, "Seventy percent of Nebraskans supported Indian gaming on the reservation. We need the media to get the message across."

"We should concentrate on leadership. Compacts are premature," said Omaha Tribal Chairman Elmer Black Bird. "Compacts should be negotiated with the governor."

Schemik said the tribes will need to remain in close communication with her office and will need to pass resolutions supporting the legislation.

Meanwhile, lobbying efforts will have to be stepped up, she said.

"This is going to be a very difficult session because it is a budget year and redistricting. I want it introduced the first day. That way we can move it on the floor quickly," Schemik said.

Judy Morgan, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said her office won't be able to devote as much time to the effort as it did last year because her staff is working on several other projects. Last year, she said her office took a great deal of heat over the gaming issue and people called her with death threats.

"It was the most stressful session that I have had personally."

The group considered the issue of a lobbyist. Last year, the Santee Sioux and the Winnebago tribes hired lobbyists to work on their behalf to sway legislators opposed to the bill and others concerning Indian interests.

However, the effort of the two tribes paled in comparison to Nebraskans Against Expanded Gambling, led by an anti-gaming activist whose organization was largely supported by two Council Bluffs casinos. Anti-gaming interests received $40,000 from the Iowa casinos to lobby against Schimek's bill and another bill for electronic pickle machines last year, officials said They added that the organization failed to report the $40,000 to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Nebraska law requires disclosure of donors giving more than $100.

Schemik said earlier this year she expected outside gaming interests to continue to lobby against the bill she plans to take back to the Legislature.

The meeting was the first of many steps for the Santee Sioux Tribe, trying to restore governmental resources and operate its casino without penalties.

The absence of voter approval to allow the tribe to conduct gaming businesses on tribal lands has caused a tremendous hardship for the small northeastern Nebraska tribe. Tribal officials are spending their time battling federal officials to retain gaming earnings and trying to work with state officials for a change which might allow them to operate within the state's law.

The tribe's assets are frozen and the move by federal officials has made it impossible for the tribe to do business, said Tribal President Roger Trudell. "The only thing we can do is operate on contracts or grants."

A grocery store and a gas station, both owned by the tribe, are leased to non-Indians as the only option for keeping the doors open so tribal members had access to them, Denny said in an interview.

"Our employees have been here almost five years. I feel we owe them an obligation because they have generated income for the tribe. Their lives are upside down. They have to worry each day about the feds coming in and trying to seize, something we highly doubt. These people working each day are under a lot of pressure," Trudell said.

Santee tribal officials said they went to each township and were given overwhelming support even though legislators prevented the proposal from moving forward.

The threat to jail tribal council members sent children through an emotional roller coaster, Thomas said.

"The children cried when they left that day not knowing if their parents would return. They were facing jail time. When our tribe won that day and the contempt charge was dismissed, the first call that was made was to the school to announce to the children that their parents were coming home," she said.

"Our children are well aware of these struggles," she said.

"They froze every single account just before Christmas. There were more than 100 accounts," she said.

"The Flandreau, Kickapoo and the Winnebago tribes came forward to present gifts to all of our children and the elders. We really appreciated that support."

While projects benefiting the Santee's development have been stymied, tribal officials are looking for other remedies.

"We have some land acquisition projects and a development project frozen. I guess if they want to keep us dependent, that's the way to do it," Trudell said.

The Santee are looking at the prospects for congressional hearings concerning the U.S. attorney's actions, seeking relief from the fine debt - now totally nearly three times its annual income - and the potential for a suit against the BIA for its failure to protect trust properties, Trudell said.