By KEN THOMAS
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A House committee approved legislation Wednesday that would advance two proposed Indian casinos in Romulus and Port Huron, seeking to end a century-old land dispute for the Michigan tribes.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved the bills to provide land for the two new casinos in exchange for the settling of 110 acres of land claims around Charlotte Beach in the Upper Peninsula.
Some lawmakers from Michigan and Nevada have criticized the plan, saying it amounted to a backdoor attempt by two tribes to gain land hundreds of miles from their reservation to build casinos outside of the normal process prescribed by federal gaming laws.
Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., an opponent, said it amounted to "egregious reservation-shopping."
The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Bay Mills Indian Community reached agreements in 2002 with the state to take land in Romulus and Port Huron, respectively, and build off-reservation casinos. The deal needs congressional approval.
The measure dealing with the Bay Mills tribe was approved 21-5 by the committee. The bill concerning the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe was passed on a 22-5 vote. The bills have been pushed by Democrats John Dingell of Dearborn and Bart Stupak of Menominee and Republican Candice Miller of Macomb County's Harrison Township.
Supporters said Congress was the only place where the tribes could resolve the dispute, which dates back to 1855, and the casinos would create jobs and economic development at a time when Michigan's economy is sputtering. They noted that both Republican Gov. John Engler and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm approved of the plan, along with local communities.
"We do only have one governor elected statewide. And two of those governors in succession ... have decided this is the right thing to do," said Rep. Dale Kildee, a Flint Democrat who sits on the committee.
Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, called the vote a "victory for Wayne County and every citizen there who is in need of a good job." He said it would lead to 3,000 jobs and more than $300 million in investments in southeast Michigan.
Previous attempts to approve the measures have failed and the proposals face an uncertain future because of opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the leadership's consultation with Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., "will continue in the normal process of determining the legislative schedule ahead."
Miller, who sponsored the Port Huron legislation, said that "tremendous obstacles still remain" but she was hopeful that the bill would get a fair hearing in the House.
The Interior Department has opposed the legislation because it would prevent proper consultation with local and state governments and neighboring tribes that might be affected by the land deal.
Heller sought to change the bills to remove references to gambling and to require further consultation with the Interior Department. But the amendments were rejected by wide margins.