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New and Improved: NIGC's Inclusive Approach Wins Approval

It’s been years since the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) received a hearty round of applause from an audience of tribal leaders and gaming experts, but that’s what happened at the recent Global Gaming Expo, not once, but twice at the end of the commissioners’ presentation.

A few years ago, meetings with the NIGC were tense and contentious affairs, as former Chairman Phil Hogen, a Bush-era appointee, pushed a “bright line” between Class II bingo machines and Class III slot machines that that he insisted was needed to protect Class II technology from federal intervention. But instead of creating a bright line, tribal leaders and gaming experts said, his proposals would have virtually reclassifying bingo machines as slot machines, threatening the commercial viability of Class II gaming.

Things at the commission changed radically when commission Chairwoman Tracie Stevens, Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Cochran, and Commissioner Dan Little were appointed beginning in January 2010. A full year into their staggered three-year terms on the primary federal agency that regulates Indian gaming, Stevens, Cochran, and Little talked about their achievements over the past year and what they hope to accomplish in the year-and-a-half left of their time together on the commission. They were warmly received by a G2E audience that filled the conference room.

Stevens opened by praising the NIGC staff members who also attended the gaming expo. “They are behind the scenes all the time and while you sit and listen to us about all the great things the agency is doing the folks here and many others out in our regions and back in D.C. should have some kudos,” she said.

When the commissioners attended the gaming expo last year they laid out “a very aggressive agenda” for the next 12 months, Stevens said. “There were four things we were going to take a look at: consultation and relationship building, training and technical assistance, regulatory review, and agency operation review. We talked about how we were going to approach out time in office. We were going to be clear. We were going to be transparent. We were going to tell you what we were going to do and we were going to do it and you were going to be included and we were going to do periodic updates so there were no surprises and the tribes were included all along the way.”

Well aware of the distrust between the NIGC and tribes left by the former chairman, Stevens said the commissioners agreed that they wanted to leave NIGC better than they had found it. “Something we heard from tribes when we first came into office is, ‘We pay fees. What do you all do and how can we be included?’ There were fences that needed to be mended about how the NIGC needed to change, how tribes needed to be at the table before we started making changes to policies.”

So the commission’s first priority was to improve consultation. “And, yes, we had a consultation on consultations and heard from the tribes what’s working and what’s not working,” Stevens said. According to the NIGC website, commissioners held almost 20 formal consultations in 2011 and several other public meetings. And mostly they traveled to the tribes for these meetings. The commission has also improved its relationship with other federal agencies such as the Justice Department, the IRS and particularly the Interior Department, all of which play a role in regulating Indian gaming, Stevens said.

Cochran has been tasked with reviewing and evaluating training and technical assistance to the tribes. “It is absolutely an essential component of our mission. In my opinion it is probably one of the greatest marks we can leave in the relationship with tribes and how we look at our regulatory practices on a day to day basis,” Cochran said. In the past year, the commission has completed an initial assessment of its programs and refined some the regional training events. It has worked on improving its course catalogue to make sure it meets tribal needs and has fostered relationships with some regional gaming associations and other federal agencies to tap into their expertise in gaming regulations. The overall goal is to provide tribes with the training and technical assistance that will help them to be in compliance, Cochran said. “And we continually ask ourselves whether or not we’re meeting the needs of tribes; that’s always the core question,” she said.

The commission last year also began the process of reviewing the regulations and began by asking tribes which regulations should be reviewed and how to review them. “We didn’t want to look at all the regs immediately, if we didn’t have to,” Stevens said. So the commissioners held a number of consultations and received 79 written submission from tribes on their priorities, Stevens said. Commissioners discovered in the consultation process that tribes wanted a Tribal Advisory Committee (TAC) to review Minimum Internal Controls (MICs)and Technical Standards regulations and so the commission put out a call to tribes for nominations. “The nominees have to be authorized by their tribal governmental body and cannot be lobbyists. Those are the criteria we put out. We want a balance of regions. Class II, Class III operations, regulators and people with specific expertise in various part of the operations,” Stevens said. The commission received 55 nominations from tribal governments and announced its selection of TAC members on its website on Oct. 6.

Asked about the general quality of NIGC and state regulations, Stevens said she found that 24 of the 28 states with have Class III gaming and 96 percent of the tribes meet the standards laid out by the commission or the states, or they have “equal or better” tribal ordinances for MICs that protect both tribal assets and players. Although all the tribes have to meet MICs either in compacts or by ordinances there are various systems in place that are working, Stevens said. “We’re going to come up with a hybrid approach because the last thing NIGC wants to do is upset any of the apple carts that are working for the tribes in Indian country,” she said.

Stevens anticipates the TAC’s work will continue through next March and new regulations will be completed by the end of next year. “We’re moving at a pretty good pace that includes tribes—the most important thing for us is that tribes are included because making regulations from a desk in D.C. doesn’t always turn out well for people on the ground out in Indian country,” she said.

The commission is also in the process of performing a top to bottom review of its own internal workings, a task overseen by Little. “We want to be a smarter, more transparent and better equipped agency that can be responsive and adapt to the needs of the industry,” Little said.

The review includes surveys, interviews and focus groups as well as well as a review of technological needs and budgetary processes.

So, the goals for next year are to formalize the revises consultation policy which is already in practice, improve training, complete most of the regulatory review, and have a more efficient and streamlined agency, Stevens summarized. “We’ll be back next year to give you a progress report,” she said.