Reservation shopping threatens tribal values and right

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When I was appointed chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee
on Resources two years ago, I promised Indian country my policies and
ambitions for their people would be one of increased economic opportunities
and strengthened sovereignty. Entering my second Congress as chair of the
committee with oversight over American Indian issues, I am proudly
undertaking one of the most ambitious ventures to follow through on that
promise.

I believe policies from Washington, D.C. should encourage tribes to take
control of their futures and the futures of their children. After hearing
numerous, unsolicited concerns about a growing practice in Indian country
known as "reservation shopping," or off-reservation gaming, I pledged to
work with tribal leaders around the country to find a solution to this
problem.

Off-reservation gaming jeopardizes many of the core values Indian tribes
hold dear: sovereignty, self-determination, tribal unity and economic
independence.

Generations of Indians struggled for and achieved the sovereign rights of
tribes. This status, although not easily attained, is easily forfeited.
Some tribes seeking off-reservation gaming deals eagerly offer to give away
some of the rights won for all tribes. The consequence of these backdoor
deals may not immediately appear, but in the long run I fear that all
tribes will be expected to willingly trade the same sovereign rights and
make the same concessions.

The intent of tribal government gaming was to rebuild reservation economies
shattered by decades of warfare, isolation and neglect.' Congress wrote the
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) to provide a framework for tribal
economic development opportunities to provide better education for their
children, health care and housing for their elders, and new economic
opportunities for all in the tribal community.

IGRA was intended to protect tribes from greedy outside interests such as
developers and governors eager to get their hands on a "fair share" of
tribes' gaming revenues. The law never envisioned sovereign tribes paying
their financial "fair share" to state governments because that "fair share"
amounts to nothing less than a state tax.

But the more Indian gaming is allowed to disconnect itself from Indian
reservation lands, the more indistinguishable it becomes from commercial
gaming operations that are taxed and regulated by the state.

The implications are vast and serious. Once a tribe is willing to share
sky-high percentages of its revenue with a state government deep in debt,
soon all tribes will be expected to follow. This undermines tribes' chances
for economic improvement and surrenders their sovereignty.

Equally concerning are proposals involving developers eager to prey on
impoverished tribes. The specifics of these proposals are greatly slanted
toward the benefit of the developers, leaving little in terms of real
revenue for tribal operations.

But the consequences of reservation shopping do not end within reservation
borders. The Indian country news reaching most Americans today involves
off-reservation gaming that brought casinos to areas where communities
never contemplated them. Americans should only hear the success stories of
Indian gaming boosting tribal economies and bettering the lives of its
tribal members. But instead, the story most Americans hear today about
tribal casinos is about a proposal to move one into yet another
neighborhood or state where no one ever envisioned gaming.

Ultimately, off-reservation gaming casts a cloud over legitimate gaming
operations and undermines tribal initiatives. The negative publicity and
local opposition leads to calls of concern to lawmakers in Washington, who
are then forced to take anti-gaming and anti-Indian positions on
legislation before Congress. This is why off-reservation gaming has made it
difficult for tribes to take land into trust, regardless of the purpose,
and for Congress to pass pro-Indian legislation.

I am committed to work toward a solution that benefits all of Indian
country. I wrote a draft bill concerning off-reservation gaming that would
clarify under what circumstances, if any, an off-reservation gaming project
would be allowed. It is imperative to address these problems on a national
level to ensure continued success for tribal gaming operations.

When the Resources Committee held a hearing on the issue this month, I
emphasized that my proposed bill is a work in progress. After hearing
testimony from a number of witnesses and tribal leaders, I planned to
provide meaningful and responsible changes to the draft to create the most
effective and fair legislation through a process of consultation with
tribal leaders from around the country.

I want to close loopholes that currently allow greedy developers and state
revenue-sharing schemes to take advantage of tribes. By clarifying where
gaming can and cannot occur, we will restore the original intent of IGRA
and protect the sovereign rights of tribes across the country.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a Republican from the 11th district in California,
has been a member of Congress since 1992. On Jan. 8, 2003 he was voted
chairman of the House Resources Committee. As chairman, he has jurisdiction
over Indian affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives.