Dingell, Conyers Spar Over Casinos

Posted November 14, 2007 at 6:44pm

A planned markup today in the Natural Resources Committee is pitting several of the most senior House Democrats against each other in a scuffle over Indian gaming in Michigan.

Last Friday, Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) scheduled today’s markup of two bills — H.R. 2176, offered by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and H.R. 4115, sponsored by Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) — to approve land claims to allow two Michigan tribes to build casinos outside the boundaries of their current reservations.

The bills essentially would have the tribes relinquish claims on land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in exchange for the right to build on land elsewhere in the state.

Dingell’s bill would allow the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians to build a casino on land in his district in Romulus; the Stupak bill would allow the Bay Mills Indian Community to build a casino in Port Huron.

But Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and a group of Michigan Republicans have appealed to Rahall to kill the bills.

At press time Wednesday, Rahall apparently was considering removing the bills from today’s markup schedule because of the flap.

In a Nov. 9 letter co-signed by Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Conyers warned that the bills would threaten the viability of three Detroit casinos that “create much needed jobs and tax revenues for the city of Detroit.” In addition, the bills would “set a dangerous precedent” of letting tribes open casinos far from their reservations.

Conyers and Kilpatrick also argue that the legislation would undermine a statewide compact under which Michigan Indian tribes have agreed not to pursue off-reservation gaming without the agreement of the other tribes in the state.

“Mr. Chairman, we urge the House Committee on Natural Resources to oppose any attempt to move [the bills] either through the committee or if [they are] attached to another piece of legislation,” they wrote.

In late October, Michigan Republican Reps. Mike Rogers, Vernon Ehlers, Pete Hoekstra and Joe Knollenberg wrote to Rahall making many of the same arguments and suggesting that the legislation would undermine the state’s ability to regulate Indian gaming.

Rogers told Roll Call on Wednesday that the issue “is not if you are for or against gaming … it is what is the economic impact on communities in a 50-mile radius” of a new casino.

But Dingell fired back Wednesday, saying the opponents’ letters “contain numerous inaccuracies, distortions and outright misrepresentations of fact regarding our legislation and its beneficial impact for the tribes, local communities and the State of Michigan.”

In a letter sent to Rahall on Nov. 14 , Dingell, Stupak and Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) wrote that the bills simply memorialize a settlement endorsed by the two successive Michigan governors after “years of negotiations between all involved parties.”

Without the settlement, tribal claims on Upper Peninsula lands — in Stupak’s district — depress housing values there and erode the tax base. The legislation will “resolve a long-standing problem and bring great benefit to all affected parties,” the Members wrote.

Dingell, Stupak and Miller also dispute the notion that the bills promote off-reservation gaming. “This is patently false,” they wrote. “In fact, the state of Michigan in conjunction with local communities selected these sites as appropriate places for new development.”

The three Members urged Rahall “to reject the 11th hour overtures of those who seek to derail the common-sense settlement embodied in [the bills] in order to protect incumbent casino gambling interests.”

The outcome in the House may not matter much because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appears to be on Conyers’ side in this dispute.

“While Sen. Reid supports Indian gaming as authorized under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, he strongly opposes off- reservation gaming,” spokesman Jim Manley said. “Should this bill pass the House, Sen. Reid will oppose the bill.”