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Washington regulators, tribes agree on casino compacts

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By David Ammons -- AP Political Writer

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Washington state gaming regulators and 27 tribes have announced agreement on new compacts that will allow thousands more slot-style machines in reservation casinos.

Full approval by the state and federal government is expected in the next four to six months.

The new master agreement with the tribes, dubbed X2, would expand the number of electronic slot machines from 18,225 to a maximum of 27,300. It would cap the number of casinos, but would give tribes authority to stay open around the clock and to offer higher stakes games.

Tribes currently are allowed to operate 675 gaming machines, although the Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Puyallup tribes are allowed to lease or purchase as many as 3,000 terminals. The new compact would allow most tribes to have as many as 975 machines. The other three tribes could expand to 3,500 and, after three years, to 4,000.

The deal, which largely reflects the groundwork done in a sweeping new compact with the Spokane Tribe of Indians, was announced March 1 in Olympia by the state Gambling Commission.

All 27 tribes have concurred and Gov. Christine Gregoire is expected to sign the deal her office helped negotiate. The Legislature, which has four voting members on the nine-member commission, planned a joint House-Senate hearing on March 8. After taking action on the pact, the commission will send the agreement to the governor and to the U.S. Interior Department.

Final approval is likely to come later this year, Commission Director Rick Day said.

Under a powerful federal law, states are required to negotiate in good faith with tribes, which enjoy sovereign nation status.

Tribal gaming is an increasingly important part of the tribes' economic base, Day said in an interview.

''The tribes don't think the state should be imposing limits at all, that it should be a business decision for them,'' he said. ''So the state tries to do its best to maintain some limitations on the growth.

''This plan continues to control the number and allows incremental growth for the tribes.''

Tom Fitzsimmons, the governor's negotiator and chief of staff, said, ''The tribes came in and asked for a lot more than what they've settled for.'' His comments were to The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, which first reported the new pact.

Ron Allen, chairman of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, called the agreement a fair compromise.

''Obviously the tribes would ask for a little more leeway, a little more liberty, but we recognize the state's interest in keeping the gambling industry under control,'' he said March 1 in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. ''It's not like they just roll over for the tribes.''

He said the new Washington agreement will be ''probably in the middle of the road'' compared with agreements in other states regarding tribal gaming. Some states require revenue-sharing, which Washington does not; and some are more restrictive and others more generous, he said.

Gregoire recently signed a compact that gives the Spokane Tribe the right to own 900 machines, which the other tribes then were entitled to. The concession angered several lawmakers, including Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, who called it a continued escalation of gaming.

But regulators say the new level still is well below the number of machines the state promised gaming tribes they could eventually operate during compact negotiations in the mid-1990s.

Under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribes can operate the same type of gaming that the state or non-tribal gaming facilities offer. Although they look and play much like video slot machines, the machines in Washington are considered a very fast lottery game, allowed because the state runs a lottery.

Tribal machines have more than tripled in the past 15 years and tribal gaming accounts for an estimated $1.2 billion of the $1.8 billion gaming industry in the state.

Washington state gaming under the new pact

The big deal: Washington state gaming regulators announced a new pact with tribes, expanding the number of gaming machines, size of wagers and hours of operation, but limiting the number of casinos and capping growth for two years.

The numbers: Twenty-seven tribes are affected. The maximum number of electronic slot machines rises from 18,225 to 27,300. Most tribes, now limited to 675 machines, would be allowed 975. Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Puyallup tribes, now allowed as many as 3,000 terminals, could increase to 3,500 and, after three years, to 4,000. Bets now limited to $5 could rise to $20 at some tables.

Big business: Tribal gaming accounts for $1.2 billion of the $1.8 billion gaming industry in the state.

Next steps: Legislators planned a hearing March 8 on the proposed pact. The state Gambling Commission was slated to take it up March 9; after that, it goes to Gov. Christine Gregoire and the U.S. Interior Department. The entire process is expected to take four to six months.

More information or feedback: Visit the Gambling Commission Web site: www.wsgc.wa.gov.

Source: The Associated Press