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Numbers show the real picture

Along with the rapid expansion of Indian gaming across the U.S. have come a number of misconceptions about the casinos operating on Native American lands, and the funds taken in therefrom. Data culled from the web sites of both the National Indian Gaming Association and the American Gaming Association paint a clearer picture of gaming in Indian country.

Of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., only 201 participate in class II or class III gaming. Class II encompasses such games as bingo, pull-tabs, lotto, punch boards and certain card games permissible under individual state laws. Class III includes everything else, i.e. casino-style table games like roulette and craps, and card games like poker and blackjack. Tribally run casinos currently operate in 29 states under a total of 249 separate gaming compacts. In order to participate in class III gaming, tribes must negotiate compacts with the state in which the games are to be played.

By comparison, commercial (non-Indian) casinos are currently legal in 11 states. Lotteries are permitted in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Pari-mutuel wagering (betting on horse and dog races with proportional payoffs) is allowed in 41 states, while charitable gaming is above board in 47 states and D.C.

Tribal governments garnered approximately $10.6 billion in gaming revenues in 2000, an amount representing less than 10 percent of the entire gaming industry's nationwide revenues. The AGA, which represents commercial casinos, listed Connecticut's two Indian casinos as the nation's fourth largest casino market in the country in 2000, with revenues that year of $1.9 billion. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun came in behind the Las Vegas Strip ($4.8 billion) Atlantic City, N.J. ($4.3 billion) and "Chicagoland," which includes parts of Illinois and Indiana ($2.0 billion).

The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, restricts tribes as to how gaming monies can be spent. Such revenue must be used for funding tribal government operations and programs, providing for the general welfare of the members and the tribe as a whole, promoting economic development, donating to charitable organizations or assisting local governments with funds.

According to NIGA, fully three-quarters of involved tribes devote their entire gaming take to these five priorities above and do not distribute per capita payments to members. Those that do issue such payments must first allocate funds for the five priorities before the Secretary of the Interior will grant the required approval. Tribal members receiving such payments must pay federal income tax on them. Only 47 gaming tribes make per capita revenue payments to their members.

Tribal gaming operations currently employ some 250,000 people across the country, 75 percent of them non-Indian. In regions of higher unemployment, however, the percentage of Indian employees is likely to be higher; for example 80 percent of casino employees in North and South Dakota are Indian.

Indian gaming can only take place on trust lands held by the federal government. Since 1988, NIGA reports that only 23 land-into-trust acquisitions for gaming purposes have taken place. During that same time period, only three off-reservation land-into-trust acquisitions have occurred. This land is, of course, taken off the local tax rolls; title is held in trust by the feds for the Indian tribe in question.

While there is a misperception that Indian gaming is unregulated, the industry actually has three levels of oversight. The individual tribes' gaming commissions serve as the primary regulators of casino and gambling operations, directly overseeing activities at tribally owned gambling venues. Under state/tribal gaming compacts, a degree of state oversight is often mandated, usually through a state gaming control board. Finally, federal regulation comes under the aegis of the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Many tribes have proven to be good neighbors when it comes to sharing revenues with their local non-Indian communities; NIGA estimated that tribes' charitable giving in 2000 totaled $68 million. Tribes have earmarked gaming revenues for donation to youth and elderly programs, schools, athletic teams and leagues, social welfare groups, programs for pathological gamblers and other such worthy organizations.

NIGA's web site can be accessed at www.indiangaming.org. AGA's web site is located at www.americangaming.org.

Competition in Connecticut

Contention and combat continue to cast their pall of smoke over the world of Indian gaming. In particular, the state of Connecticut is notorious for its vocal opposition to casino expansion. Several towns in Fairfield County, the state's most prosperous region, have banded together to request greater local input in the casino-approval process, arguing that they would bear the brunt of the impact of casinos, but have little or no input in their approval or location.

Success for some tribes appears to mean that others may lose out. Several smaller Connecticut tribes seeking formal recognition, including the Golden Hill Paugussetts, Eastern Pequots and Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, now face more stringent local opposition as result of the backlash against expanded gaming in Connecticut. In many minds, federal recognition and gaming seem to have unfortunately become synonymous.

Texas Attorney General John Cornyn has already closed a casino on the western fringe of his state; now he's pushing east. After his February shutdown of the Tiguas' casino in El Paso, Cornyn again argues that another Indian casino, this one operated by the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in Lufkin, is operating in defiance of the law. A tribal attorney retorted that Texas' 1991 constitutional amendment permitting a state-run lottery opened the door for tribal gaming, the regulation of which is a sovereign right given to tribes by the U.S. Supreme Court. Arguments similar to those were unsuccessfully employed by the Tiguas.

Representatives of several major Indian organizations have reportedly traveled to Lufkin to support their Alabama-Coushatta brethren. Cornyn is a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Competition for prime casino locations continues to pit tribes against each other in Rhode Island, Louisiana, Oregon, New York and elsewhere.

In Arizona, where the state legislature recently began a special session to debate expanded Indian gaming, the racing sector has reportedly jumped ahead of the pack in efforts to squelch a compact renegotiated between the state's tribes and Republican Governor Jane Hull. Gaming compacts currently in place are due to begin expiring in 2003.

In Maine, Down-Easters are roughly split on a proposed casino, with a very slight majority leaning against it, according to a recent poll. While the proposal, made by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes, has been tabled until the departure of Maine's outgoing, anti-casino governor next year, opposition has already coalesced, at least in certain quarters. Proponents are said to be scouting alternative locations.