Zogby poll's rallying call for tax sovereignty

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Like a clarion call to apathetic troops, a new poll by the Zogby
International survey firm is a summons to end defeatism over tax
sovereignty. The poll concerned New York state, where a brewing
confrontation over a state sales tax on reservation business has apparently
been put off for another year.

Even though politicians and editorial writers have mounted a campaign to
impose the tax, the Zogby poll found that state voters give overwhelming
support to the delay and agree with the tribal position by a 2 -- 1 margin.
Despite a barrage of hostile rhetoric, the poll shows a dramatic firming of
favorable opinion toward tribal governments and Indian businessmen. These
results should transform the political picture in New York state and
hearten sovereignty advocates throughout Indian country.

The New York tribes -- the Six Nations of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee)
Confederacy and two state-recognized Algonquin tribes on Long Island --
have benefited enormously since 1997 from a state policy of respect for
their economic sovereignty, a respect won the hard way by a tribal
grass-roots uprising. In spite of an apparent go-ahead from the U.S.
Supreme Court, in one of a series of Rehnquist-era disasters, Gov. George
Pataki wisely responded to the resistance by calling off the state's
attempt to tax reservation sales to non-Indians. The result was
unparalleled economic success on reservations across the state.

The growth revived stagnant regional economies and created thousands of
jobs for non-Indians. But special interest lobbies, politicians and even
some casino-dazed Indian leaders have been conspiring for the past three
years to throw this achievement away.

The fact that the state's voters recognize what the tribes have
accomplished, and how they accomplished it, should rebuke the politicians
who thought that anti-Indian posturing would give them an easy ride with
some upstate anti-tribal activists, and perhaps more importantly, win
campaign contributions from certain economic interests. State Attorney
General Eliot Spitzer, the front-runner to succeed Pataki as governor this
year, might want to rethink his militancy on the tax issue. The Zogby poll
shows that his liberal constituency in New York City leads the state in
support for the tribes. This example should also inspire tribes fighting
tax battles in Washington state, Oklahoma, Idaho and Kansas, to name just a
few of the hot spots.

The remarkable thing about the Zogby results is that they belie a
propaganda campaign that has dominated the political debate and the media.
The lobby for non-Indian convenience stores and gas stations has long
resented what it sees as the unfair tax advantage of reservation
businesses. Tribes have made substantial concessions through price parity
agreements, where the margin that would be the state tax becomes a tribal
tax. But the emotional intensity of the anti-tribal campaign, and its
investment in political giving, has long since eclipsed its economic
purpose. The special interest lobby managed to convince the New York
Legislature in 2003 that the reservation tax would give it an easy $500
million to close a deficit. The lawmakers passed a budget mandating the
state to tax reservation sales. (The new regulations were supposed to go
into effect this March 1, until Gov. Pataki extended the deadline to next
year.)

This "revenue loss" figure was a total myth. Internal estimates by the
state Department of Taxation and Finance put the potential impact at
one-tenth that amount, and even their figures might be high. But claims of
the alleged revenue loss keep ballooning. One state legislator recently
puffed it up to an incredible $1 billion. The state press has been gullible
or lazy enough to report these bogus estimates without any serious
analysis. Editorial writers have chimed in, uniformly attacking Pataki. But
the average voter isn't buying it. The voters, in fact, are showing more
common sense than the Pataki administration. As customers, they understand
the economic boost that results from lowering tax pressure. (And they
understand that economic gains quickly vanish when taxes go up again.)

Pataki himself seems to get the picture. It is, after all, another
application of Republican "supply-side" ideology. But his administration
has shown divided counsel. In negotiating land claims settlements and
casino compacts with Iroquois tribes, the state has pressed for tax
concessions whenever it could. The Seneca Nation resisted stoutly and came
away clean with a flourishing, untaxed, casino empire. Some expatriate
tribes caved completely, accepting full state taxation in a betrayal of the
1997 struggle. Even the former St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council agreed to a
state sales tax at its so far illusory Catskill casino in return for an
equally illusory state display of "consideration" for tax sovereignty at
Akwesasne. When the federal courts kicked the stays from the already
tottering land claims deals, they inadvertently did the New York tribes a
huge favor.

The Haudenosaunee, plus the Unkechaug and the Shinnecock on Long Island,
now have a fresh start for affirming their tax sovereignty. The Seneca
Business Steering Committee, which commissioned the Zogby poll, is
developing a legal strategy, and the St. Regis Mohawk Business Task Force
is organizing with renewed energy. They should heed the call of Unkechaug
Chief Harry Wallace, the frontline hero of the struggle since 1997, for
full inter-tribal coordination.

Beyond litigation, what is needed is a major positive campaign in the court
of public opinion. New York Native nations must now vigorously communicate
their main points on self-government, treaty rights and on the beauty of
their own distinct cultures to this real but untapped public majority that
essentially supports these values.

Ideas are plentiful for mobilizing popular support. Suggestions for an
action plan appear in a report issued last June by the American Indian
Media and Policy Initiative at Buffalo State College. Noting the glaring
gap between public support for Indian business and press hostility, Buffalo
State Communication Department Chairman Ronald Smith listed such steps as
initiatives to increase print, television and radio coverage of Indian
issues, attempts to gain press outlets for Indian opinion pieces, and
direct outreach to customers at reservation stores. It seems simple enough
to place pamphlets explaining tax sovereignty at checkout counters or
information desks in tribal casinos. St. Regis Mohawk businessmen once
asked customers to sign a petition supporting sovereignty and collected
13,000 signatures. Other ideas are sure to emerge, including education via
television, radio and newspapers, and a closer scrutiny of the political
actors.

As a parallel to the Abramoff scandal, perhaps the political giving of the
anti-sovereignty lobby also deserves investigation.

The Zogby survey shows that the voting public is far more receptive to the
Indian viewpoint than any of us might have hoped. Now is the time to take
heart and make our case.