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Skibine is ‘setting the table’ for the next NIGC chair

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – The acting chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission may not be in that position for very long, but he’s forging the path for the next chairman.

George Skibine was appointed by the White House in September as interim chairman of the commission. He began the job in early October when former Chairman Phil Hogen retired.

Skibine is currently the principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs. He was the director of the Office of Indian Gaming, a position he gave up so a perceived conflict of interest was not created with his role as acting NIGC chairman.

He spoke to Indian Country Today at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas Nov. 16 – 19, an international gaming trade show and conference organized by the American Gaming Association. The event drew more than 26,000 people in 2008 despite the plunging economy.

Skibine was there to participate in a number of panel discussions. Asked in what direction he’d like to take the commission, Skibine said he was limited by his timeframe there.

“I think the problem that I have is that I’m there for seven months – max – which is very, very small and I’ll probably be there less than that because the White House is actively looking very hard to have a name to submit for confirmation and I think that will happened quickly.”

Nevertheless, Skibine has managed to move the commission forward both by what he has done and what he has not done. One of his first acts on the job was to delay the implementation of new regulations for Minimum Internal Control Standards in Class II gaming machines.

Class II regulations became a hot button issue marked by controversy during Hogen’s last two years on the job as he proposed changing Class II gaming in a way that would have essentially made Class II machines into Class III machines. Tribes vociferously opposed the proposal.

“We’re not going to have any (changes to) regulations during the time I’m there,” Skibine said.

He is also against the idea of classifying Class II machines as Class III machines.

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“I’m opposed to that, but it isn’t going to make any difference because of the time I’m there, but if I were to stay, I just don’t agree that that would be the way to go in terms of limiting the scope of Class II machines. One of the reasons I’m saying that, of course, is with respect to compact negotiations. Tribes do need to have the arms length bargaining with the states so if they cannot negotiate a compact, there’s no avenue for that. The only thing they have is Class II gaming, so to limit their option there when it’s not justified by the law in light of the fact that there’s already not a level playing field with Class III gaming, I think is not fair to the tribes.”

Skibine also disagrees with the former chairman’s characterization of the NIGC as an independent agency – a characterization, which, along with proposed regulations and the lack of consultation so infuriated the National Indian Gaming Association that it passed resolutions during this year seeking Hogen’s removal and wrote to President Barack Obama asking him to appoint a new chairman as soon as possible.

“Let’s just say there’s considerable doubt about that. I certainly don’t think it’s clear cut the way he saw it. It may be quasi-independent because some of the decisions made by the chairman aren’t reviewable by anyone, but there’s doubt because of other cases,” Skibine said.

He cited landmark Colorado River Indian Tribe’s case, known as the CRIT decision, in which the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2006 upheld a lower court decision that NIGC has limited authority under Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to issue regulations related to Class III gaming. He also noted that the commission is within the Interior Department and that the Interior secretary has the power to appoint two of the three commissioners and can also dismiss them for cause.

Skibine said he intended to review the Indian preference rule for the commission. An overwhelming majority of employees at the commission are non-Native.

Asked which of his many roles in the Interior department is the most rewarding, Skibine said the NIGC acting chairmanship fits the bill.

“It’s proved to be a very enlightening experience. It’s a small agency with not that many employees, so things can get done, the chairman can make decisions and they can move forward fast. It’s overall well run, so that’s very different than the BIE and BIA with 10,000 people at the agency and to make change is incredibly different and there’s so many layers of politics, it’s truly a big bureaucracy.”

But he’s not applying for the job, he said. Skibine said he made a commitment to the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs during this administration’s term in office.

J.R. Matthews, Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma vice chairman and NIGA treasurer, said Skibine is doing a good job.

“It looks like he’s just manning the ship for the next chairman, but he’s also doing a couple of things I’m kind of proud of him for. He put off the Class II regs for a year. And is taking a hard look at consultation and some other things, so he is setting the table for the next chairman and he’s setting it up so instead of it being a battle like it was with the former chair, it’s a whole different attitude at NIGC. You can actually call there now and have a conversation. They actually want to help. It’s kind of refreshing.”