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Santee casino fuels Nebraska political debate

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SANTEE, Neb. - The Ohiya Casino on the Santee Sioux Reservation in northeastern Nebraska is the source of a highly charged campaign debate for legislative candidates on the campaign trail.

Political newcomer Douglas Cunningham, 45, a Wausa grocer, and , 61-year-old Laurel farmer Robert "Bob" Dickey are competing for votes in a district which covers much of northeast Nebraska including all of Cedar County and the Wausa area of southeast Knox County. The Santee Sioux reservation with 700 to 1,000 tribal residents lies in north central Knox County.

Dickey, running for his second term, made it clear he opposes gambling by voting against placing the issue on the ballot during the last legislative session, attempting to steer the state clear of expanded gaming.

Cunningham, who doesn't favor blanket legislation on gaming but is willing support a ballot measure, said voters should make the decision instead of the Legislature.

The casino, which serves as one of the small reservation's best prospects for initiating economic development, has been snarled in court battles for the past four years while operating without a state gaming compact.

The tribe relies heavily on the casino for its tribal programs. It is the lone tribally-owned enterprise still operating on the reservation, Tribal Chairman Arthur "Butch" Denny said.

Residents of the reservation community suffer from a hefty unemployment rate, nearly 74 percent. Loss of a major pharmaceuticals company that pulled out four years ago left nearly two dozen tribal members jobless or having to commute great distances to work. The casino, which earns $1 million annually, continues to employ 23 tribal residents.

That unemployment rate and more people moving back to the reservation because of welfare reform have added pressure for the tribe to provide funds for their needs, Denny said.

Court battles began shortly after the casino opened its doors when state officials claimed casino-style gambling was prohibited. When the tribe refused to close its doors, U.S. Attorney Tom Monaghan pursued the matter, freezing bank accounts to collect mounting fines and nearly forcing it to close.

Denny said the tribe simply hides its gaming revenues and operates on a cash basis when paying workers.

Two tribally operated businesses were forced to close and are leased by non-Indian operators because the finance freeze applied to every tribal enterprise, Denny said.

The hard-line approach taken by the U.S. Attorney's Office impaired tribal efforts to stimulate economic development and provides little incentive to pursue it until the issue is sorted out in the Legislature and the courts.

Meanwhile, it is business as usual at the Santee casino and patrons continue to seek gaming entertainment, Denny said.

Dorla and Dwight Schroeder, who live in Knox County, are casino regulars. Both favor allowing the issue to be placed on the ballot. "I think people should vote on it. We have the lottery. Why shouldn't the Santee have their casino?" Dorla asked.

"The lottery is gambling, too," Dwight added.

Restricting gaming in Nebraska doesn't stop them from seeking trying their luck at nearby casinos across the borders in Iowa or South Dakota. They say it is a diversion and a chance to socialize. The trips, Dorla said, are simply excursions and they use disposable income to play. While the retired couple says their adult children are some times critical about how they spend their extra money, they view it as no different from money spent on other entertainment such as golf or eating out.

"We don't spend a lot of money. "This is kind of our outing," Dorla said. "This isn't hurting anybody. Why should Nebraskans go out of state to gamble?" she asked.

The tribal chairman agreed with patrons who said the state isn't going to deter residents from going to casinos by failing to put the issue to a vote. "They are not stopping anybody from gambling."

The Schroeders, who favor tribal gaming, are not sure additional gaming would benefit the state or tribal enterprises.

"I don't know how big it might get. It might ruin it," Dwight said. "I say let the Indians do it. Let them support themselves. I don't care if they make more money than they need. The lottery is gambling, too."

But the casino, operating without a state compact , fueled the District 18 race.

"I definitely would have let it go to a vote of the people," Cunningham said. "I get the sense that the people overwhelming wanted it on the ballot. ... If you think they would vote it in, why should 49 senators stand in the way of what people want?" he asked.

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He acknowledged problems with gambling, but said there are other sides. "They are already loading busloads of people and taking them to the other reservation casinos. They are already leaving our area.

While he wouldn't say how he'd vote on a ballot issue, Cunningham insisted, "the people should have been able to vote because it is a controversial issue. ... I would have been the senator that would have allowed that to happen because that's what the people wanted. ... I'm going to represent my district," Cunningham said.

"Where I sense the opposition is in northern Cedar County. Where I live, they would vote to allow the casino gambling on the reservation."

Dickey said his opposition stems from a fear it would lead to the expansion of gaming across the state and add to already existing problems from gambling addictions by those who can least afford it. "... it not only affects the individual, it affects their families. It affects the communities they live in.

"I've heard of crimes being committed because people are addicted to gambling. Bankruptcies occur because of the gambling situation with some people. I've heard of family farms being lost. I think it is a very, very serious situation not only for the families, but for the communities," he said.

Dickey said he reasoned an explosion of gaming interests competing against each other would mean little gain for the Indian casinos. "How well off are the Indian casinos going to be if it is spread out in a number of different ways and a number of different locations."

He points to potential economic losses for Main Street in Nebraska's small towns, suggesting the state's businesses would be competing against gaming interests for the same revenue. "There are only so many discretionary dollars that can be spent for food, clothing, shelter and other goods and services. ... It is an emotional issue."

Dickey said he supported other avenues for economic development including initiatives to bring industry to small to midsize counties. A measure passed last year provides state tax incentives and grants to industries willing to locate facilities in rural areas. They can be used with federal incentives for enterprise zones to give further enticement to industry, he said.

Last year, Sen. DiAnne Schimek of Lincoln, also up for re-election, sponsored a bill as the first step in allowing the Santee to operate its casino without continuing to amass fines. The tribe has been fined nearly $3,000 to $6,000 a day since February 1999 for non-compliance with nearly 2-year-old state and federal court rulings ordering the tribe to shut down the casino. At $6,000 a day, they could add up to as much as $2.1 million over the course of a year, nearly double estimates of what the tribe nets in casino revenue.

While Schimek traditionally opposed gambling proposals, she favors allowing the tribes to dictate how it will develop tribal lands. She said she views it as a sovereignty issue. She emphasized that her proposal for a constitutional amendment for the ballot last year restricted gaming solely to tribal lands.

"I think there is good justification in this case for our approving such a measure ... sovereignty and ... economic development. I believe the intent of the Indian gaming law was to allow the tribes gaming. Because our constitution is structured like it is regarding gaming, it is probably necessary to pass a constitutional amendment.

Schimek said she would pursue it again. "I was really disappointed because it was a deadlocked committee. We only got an hour to debate pulling it. We missed by one vote of getting it out to the floor. I want it to have a fair debate on the floor of the Legislature."

While skeptical about the role of gaming as a means of economic development, Schimek points out that tribes have used casinos to fuel their economies allowing new businesses to spring up. She said legislators saw evidence of the positive impact of gaming interests on tribal communities during a recent tour of reservations.

"We've learned what kinds of things are possible with funds from gaming. ... some tribes ... have really made some good investments and have assured themselves of some economic development in addition to the gaming.

"The studies I've read have indicated that gaming operations can drain communities in terms of their businesses. They are sold as economic development and that isn't what they always are. On none of our three reservations have we had any kind of meaningful economic development. Instead of competing with a lot of economic opportunities and businesses, you are establishing new economic development," she said. "... the whole psychology of having self-sufficiency ... is incredibly important so the tribes can really more adequately and meaningfully govern themselves, establishing their own programs and do the kinds of things they know need to be done," Schimek said.

Despite the political sparring on the issue, Schimek said she sees Nebraskans as generally supportive of the Santee's efforts.

"They do have good support in that area. The couple of times I've been in the casino, residents from that county and nearby counties have come."

She said one of the less pleasant sides of the debate is that if the issue makes it to the ballot, millions of dollars will be spent by out-of-state, anti-gaming groups and gaming interests to defeat it. "You never know how much money will be poured into stopping it if it gets on the ballot."

To keep the casino afloat and prospects for economic development alive, Denny said the tribe has to do everything possible to prevent the U.S. Attorney from accessing its revenue.

"They did take our casino revenues out of the bank, so we deal strictly with cash. It is very tough because the U.S. Attorney is trying to find our money," he said.

Hoping a legislative turnover in November will aid the tribe's efforts and others may change their minds, Denny said, "We're probably going to go back before the legislators to see if they will vote on it again.

"The thing is, if we would have had the one guy in last year, we would have gotten it through committee. Most of the Nebraska legislators have this paternalistic attitude toward the people. They don't really want us to vote on anything. They feel that if something will pass if they put it to the voters, they don't want to do it."