A House Resources Committee hearing today will shed new light on a widening rift within the American Indian casino industry, lobbyists and Congressional aides say.
The hearing will address a draft bill circulated recently by Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) that, if approved, would essentially stop Indian tribes from acquiring out-of-state land to house casinos — a practice sometimes called “reservation shopping.”
Although most tribes oppose legislation on the matter, a minority has come out vocally in favor of a federal solution and has expressed an interest in working with Pombo’s committee.
As a result, the trade association and lobbying firms that represent tribes are finding that they need to chart a delicate course if they are to avoid potential conflicts within the community — especially in the wake of investigations into Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist whose work on Indian gaming has been the subject of Senate hearings and drawn widespread criticism.
Already, an impromptu coalition of Indian tribes is coming together as the Coalition Against Reservation Shopping. The coalition hopes to pass legislation and expose the cozy relationships between some tribes and land developers, said a consultant familiar with the group. As many as 10 tribes, including the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, are likely to join the new group.
Leslie Lohse, treasurer of the Paskenta Band, said, “We’re very opposed to the reservation shopping, and we support Congressman Pombo addressing the issue and we look forward to a final bill.”
Lohse said three other tribes have applied to move into land near her tribe.
The coalition, she said, consists of tribal leaders who have come together “to say we want to stop this — these developers that come in here, using their monies to buy their way into local offices. It’s got to stop.”
One lobbyist characterized the split in part as a struggle between tribal “haves and have-nots.” The tribes with gaming interests want to protect their market, which leads some to favor a bill like Pombo’s, while those without profitable casinos may be looking at moving into territory where gaming is permissible and profitable.
Lobbyists involved in the new coalition said there was a need for their perspective to be heard.
“There’s not an organization right now that is speaking for tribes on the other side of the debate,” said Markham Erickson, an Indian lawyer and lobbyist who represents the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, which has opposed the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin from moving a casino into the Empire State.
Indeed, the trade group for Indian casinos, the National Indian Gaming Association, is chaired by Ernest Stevens Jr. of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. The association opposes Pombo’s legislation. Stevens, who was traveling and could not be reached for comment, planned to testify in today’s hearing that his group instead advocates for a regulation under the existing law that would clarify state and local governments’ role in consulting with the Interior Secretary.
Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Pombo, said the draft bill tightens restrictions on tribes that are looking at crossing state lines and “tips the scales in favor of local control and community involvement,” including approval of casino projects by local voters.