GRA fix in doubt after first hearing

Jerry Reynolds
3/30/05

WASHINGTON - In light of its stated intentions, a March 17 hearing in the
House of Representatives on off-reservation gaming was a false step. By the
time the hearing adjourned, the need for legislation to address
"reservation shopping" through an Indian Gaming Regulatory Act amendment
did not seem overwhelming; and the "discussion draft" of a bill to do so
was returned to congressional staff for further work.

In light of unstated necessities, however, the hearing was more impressive.
Above all, it asserted House Resources as the committee of jurisdiction on
Indian gaming in the 109th Congress - appropriations committees need not
apply - and one witness pleaded that tribes not be surprised by "late
amendments on the House or Senate floor or in the conference committee"
that would be called to resolve differences between House and Senate
versions of a bill should it pass both chambers.

In addition, it separated the alarmists who demand action now against
reservation shopping from those who acknowledge it as a problem but seek a
judicious fix, sensing a grave threat to the integrity of IGRA if it is
opened to amendment on an issue so readily ranged against Indian gaming at
large.

The phrase "reservation shopping" stands for the perceived practice of some
casino developers and state governments of financing gaming tribes in an
effort to establish lucrative, tax-free tribal casinos on lands far removed
from a tribe's recognized reservation. If tribes can establish a claim to
historical lands outside current reservation boundaries, IGRA authorizes a
process for placing it in trust as a matter of righting past wrongs.

Though only three tribes have been granted off-reservation gaming rights, a
cluster of applications are pending under various IGRA provisions. A number
of off-reservation gaming proposals are going forward in California, the
constituency state of Rep. Richard Pombo, the Republican chairman of House
Resources. Local non-Indian communities, as well as many tribes, have
weighed in against reservation shopping.

Mark Van Norman, executive director of the National Indian Gaming
Association, amicably dismantled the case for an IGRA amendment against
reservation shopping in quiet testimony that spelled out the many IGRA
provisions already in place against the abuses of that practice. "From our
point of view, any amendment to the act [IGRA] is to be approached with
caution."

Addressing the draft bill's introduction of pro-state provisions at several
points of its proposed new land acquisition approval process, Van Norman
diplomatically understated the certain tribal reaction: "Tribal governments
will need time to consider any amendment to the act that would expand the
existing role of state governments, so provisions requiring approval by
state subdivisions for the use of Indian trust lands will be closely
examined by tribal governments."

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., completed the rout by eliciting answers
from another witness to the effect that while non-Indian communities may
not like the results of IGRA provisions that permit gaming on tribal trust
land acquired after the law's 1988 passage, the approval process itself is
fair and thorough.

When Van Norman and Pallone finished, the panel of witnesses and the Pombo
committee alike expressed some agreement that IGRA's integrity must be
maintained, come what may of the "work in progress ... a deliberative
process" promised by Pombo in offering his "discussion draft" of a future
bill on off-reservation gaming.

Tim Martin, executive director of United Southern and Eastern Tribes,
initially asked Congress to "pass this corrective legislation." USET, a
coalition of relatively small tribes (most of them with thriving casino
operations), has been the lead voice among tribal organizations against
reservation shopping. Toward the hearing's end, however, Martin seemed to
express second thoughts about the draft bill's more state-intrusive
passages: "Any involvement with local governments would be a step back." He
maintained USET's support for the apparent intent behind Pombo's proposed
IGRA amendment: "a common-sense solution to put an end to reservation
shopping for gaming purposes."

NIGA and the National Congress of American Indians convened a task force
meeting in Washington March 24 to consider Pombo's discussion draft
legislation. Future NIGA/NCAI Task Force on Indian Gaming meetings on the
proposal are scheduled for April 13 in San Diego and May 25 at the Great
Plains/Midwest Indian Gaming Conference in Minnesota.

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