Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Conyers and Dingell face off over casinos
By Susan Crabtree

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) is clashing with Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) over the thorny issue of Indian gambling, setting up a standoff between two of the oldest bulls in Congress.

Conyers has stepped into an Indian gambling dispute that is dividing the Michigan delegation and the Democratic Caucus. After teaming up with Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the 22-term House veteran has used his position as chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee to oppose two bills that would settle tribal land disputes and clear the way for new casinos to be built near both lawmakers’ Detroit-area districts.

Conyers argues that the bills would change the way casinos are approved by allowing Congress to get involved in land dispute claims that the U.S. Department of the Interior routinely determines. He also cites the concern that the casinos would be located more than 350 miles from the tribes’ reservations.

“Without these constraints, there would seem to be no limit to how far Indian gaming could spread, far beyond reasonable bounds,” Conyers said at a hearing he held on the issue the day before Congress left for its spring recess.

On the other side, Dingell, a 27-term veteran of the House and its longest-serving member, has joined forces with Natural Resources panel Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), along with a bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers, to push for the bills.

Dingell argues that the cities where the casinos will be built — Romulus and Port Huron — are in dire need of the new jobs and economic stimulation that the casinos would provide. Romulus lies in his district, while Port Huron must compete with jobs right across the border in Canada, where a casino already exists.

But Conyers and Kilpatrick worry that the new casinos will cut into profits of existing Detroit casinos, including one owned by MGM Mirage, which is lobbying furiously against the bills. If built, the new casinos could cut into revenue that Detroit receives from taxes on those profits because Indian gambling revenues are exempt from local, state and federal tax.

Conyers has until April 4 to either rewrite the measure or decide to hold a committee vote on the bills.

Many of the panel’s members oppose the bills and would vote against them. The Judiciary Committee’s stamp of disapproval could help stir opposition once it reaches the House floor for a full vote.

The intra-party feud also is shaping up as the first major test for Democrats on the thorny issue of Indian casinos after the fall of Jack Abramoff, whose corrupt lobbying practices involving tribes and gambling helped propel Democrats into power in 2006.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been thrust into the middle of the gambling spat and has promised Dingell floor time for the bills, according to two sources tracking the measure. But the division runs so deep that the outcome of such a vote is unpredictable. MGM Mirage and the two tribes that stand to benefit, the Bay Mills Indian Community and the Sault Ste. Marie, have spent the last month ratcheting up their lobbying blitz.

The intense battle over Indian gaming pits many CBC members, who side with Kilpatrick and Conyers, against proponents of the measure, such as Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), as well as Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who co-chair the Native American Caucus. Many conservative Blue Dog Coalition members oppose casinos on principle, arguing that they create more crime and dependency.

At the pre-recess Judiciary hearing, several members on both sides of the aisle expressed deep reservations about the legitimacy of the land deals. The hearing was held to counter a previous hearing in the Natural Resources Committee, where Dingell and Conyers testified, along with three other sitting lawmakers.

The Natural Resources panel overwhelmingly approved both bills. One would settle the land claim of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians, and the other addresses the Bay Mills Community tribal land.

Dingell has said he is supporting the casinos because the residents of his district and the neighboring district of Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) want them.

“I will say it again — the people of Romulus approved a referendum supporting the opening of a casino in their community,” Dingell said in February. “It would be the only casino in my district. It would be run by a Native American tribe that has a legitimate land claim issue and that also operates a casino in Detroit.”

He said the tribe is not concerned about the effect a Romulus casino would have on its Detroit operation. But the opponents of the Romulus casino say that the lack of concern stems from their belief that the casino in Detroit was hurt when MGM built a newer, more elaborate operation in the city.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Reservations Rebuffed: Off-Reservation Gaming Policy


Reservations Rebuffed

By Shawn Zeller, CQ Staff

Tribal casinos, which have bulked into a multibillion-dollar industry since Congress first gave them its blessing two decades ago, now possess all sorts of economic and political clout — but not enough, it seems, for them to go off the reservation.

American Indians marooned on reservations far from population centers have long pressed the Interior Department to grant them the authority to launch gambling operations closer to where the people willing to risk their money live — and rake in the sort of revenues that the more fortuitously situated tribes have enjoyed.

These tribes argue that the mass repatriation of Indians onto federal reservations in the 19th century was originally an unjust process driven by little more than federal fiat and so shouldn’t form any basis for sound policy now. What’s more, they argue, tribes now flush with gambling money, such as Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, came into possession of optimally sited reservation land via controversial treaties that often had little or nothing to do with the location of ancestral land.

But in January top Interior officials wrote to rebuff 11 tribes that were waiting on applications to acquire new land for casinos. (Eleven others were told their applications were incomplete.) At the same time Interior made public a new policy that, in the tribes’ view, makes it nearly impossible for them to win approval for any desirable off-reservation site.

Their letters contended that siting casinos too far from existing reservations would not produce meaningful employment opportunities to tribe members — a claim the petitioning tribes hotly dispute.

“When I received the notice, I hit the roof,” says Lorraine White, chief of New York’s St. Regis Mohawks. “It is completely contrary to our belief about the law.” The Mohawks, whose reservation is on the Canadian border, have plans with Empire Resorts Inc. to construct a 125-table, 3,500-slot-machine casino 350 miles to the south in the Catskill Mountains — less than a two-hour drive from Manhattan — and had secured the backing of local leaders and the state of New York.

What usually does off-reservation casinos in is opposition from local communities, as opposed to policy judgment calls from Washington. But the sweep of this year’s rejections by Interior suggests the federal consensus is hardening further against off-reservation gambling. And Interior’s new policy “makes impossible what was already nearly impossible,” says I. Nelson Rose, a law professor at California’s Whittier Law School who specializes in gambling.

In setting the policy, Interior cited a 1934 law intended to promote reservations as economic hubs for tribes. Under that law, the department says, it must subject off-reservation sites to greater critical scrutiny — the more so if they’re far removed from a tribe’s reservation. Applying that reasoning to the pending casino operations, Interior ruled that gaming facilities that are not within commuting distance of a reservation, apparently about 75 miles, could undermine reservation life.

“Interior essentially said they know better what’s good for the tribe than the tribe does,” says Tom Shields, a spokesman for California’s Los Coyotes Band of Mission Indians, who have been seeking for years to build a casino in Barstow, 150 miles north of their reservation and a couple of hours by car from Los Angeles. That tribe’s plan has overwhelming local support, Shields contends, but it was among the 22 nixed in January.

Interior spokesman Shane Wolfe said he could not comment on the policy change because of pending litigation. Wisconsin’s St. Croix Chippewa filed suit in federal district court in Washington in December charging Interior with violating Congress’ intent in the 1988 law sanctioning Indian gambling.

The Mohawks also filed suit in January but have since dropped the case, White says, in order to step up efforts to lobby Congress on the issue. West Virginia Democrat Nick J. Rahall II , the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced a bill this month that would mandate a consultative process with Indian tribes before Interior could adopt further changes.

The federal government has “a moral obligation” to consult with the tribes, Rahall says; the Bush administration’s handling of the issue, he adds, evinces “a clear disregard for that legal, political and moral responsibility.”

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