Canton Repository

September 14, 2006

Democrats kill bill to limit tribal casinos

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON A majority of House Democrats on Wednesday defeated a bill that would have barred Indian tribes from opening casinos outside their home states — including the Eastern Shawnee who are seeking to establish a casino in Canal Fulton.

The failure of the bill hurts the chances that any legislation will pass this year to limit what critics call reservation shopping.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., was considered the more likely of two related bills to pass before the session ends.

A similar Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been blocked, at least temporarily, by several senators — including Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio — who have clamped holds on it.

Backers of the McCain bill were hoping the Pombo measure would pass to give their legislation some momentum.

One of the provisions of the Pombo bill — prohibiting tribes from opening casinos outside their home states — ostensibly would prevent the Oklahoma-based Shawnee from starting a casino in Canal Fulton or elsewhere in Ohio.

Terry Casey, a spokesman for the Shawnee, said the tribe was “obviously happy that it (the bill) met its fate today.”

But, he added, “our view is until Congress is done and out of session, you never know when something might come back.”

Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, was the only area lawmaker who voted in favor of the bill to limit Indian casinos.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Heath, did not vote on the measure, and his office did not return calls seeking to find out why.

The House voted 247-171 in favor of the legislation, but the bill failed because it needed a two-thirds majority — 290 votes — under a special procedure used to bar any amendments to the bill.

The legislation won support from 208 Republicans and 39 Democrats, while 154 Democrats and 16 Republicans voted against it.

The proposal grew out of increasing frustration among state and local officials, who complain that tribes are abusing their gambling rights on their reservations by filing lawsuits to open casinos in lucrative locations in other states.

Regula has not taken a position on the proposed Shawnee casino in his congressional district, which he considers a “local-control matter.” But he said he supported the bill because he believes tribes and casinos are taking advantage of existing law.

“What happens is that I think non-Indians use the tribes in many instances as a front to put in gaming in communities under the guise that this is an Indian casino — and this happens in areas where it’s not on Indian land,” he said.

Ney in the past has opposed legislation such as Pombo’s that would amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Reps. Sherrod Brown, D-Avon, and Tim Ryan, D-Niles, also voted against the bill. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lisbon, was absent from the vote.

Voinovich, a foe of casino gaming in Ohio, put a hold on the McCain version of the legislation to try to persuade his colleague to add a provision that would permit governors to veto casinos in their states, Voinovich spokesman Chris Paulitz said.

McCain is negotiating with several senators who are blocking the bill.

After the defeat of the Pombo bill, Pombo spokeswoman Melissa Mazzella DeLaney said it’s too early to speculate on the chances of passing a bill this year. But she noted that House Republican leaders have other priorities before Congress adjourns to campaign for re-election.

“We gave this a shot, and it didn’t pass,” she said.

Indian tribes and tribal gaming associations overwhelmingly opposed the legislation, which was backed by House GOP leaders. During the past 16 years, Indian gaming contributions to lawmakers have favored Democrats over Republicans by more than 2-1, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Pombo’s bill, the more narrowly drawn and restrictive of the two proposals, would prohibit tribes that have land in trust from acquiring more land not contiguous to their reservations for gaming.

The legislation also would require tribes that open casinos first to reach an agreement with the host community under which Indians would pay for transportation improvements and increased public safety costs generated by the casino.

Opponents such as Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., argued the bill “subverts” Indians’ tribal sovereignty by requiring tribes to reach agreements with counties.

“Never before has a federal law equated sovereign tribes with counties,” Kildee said.

Tribes, like states, have the status of sovereign entities. They must negotiate gaming compacts with states but do not need counties’ permission under current law.

Other Democrats complained the bill either would allow casinos that they oppose to go forward in their districts or would interfere with the opening of casinos they favor.

Opponents also criticized the inability to amend the bill on the floor.

Pombo warned that failure to pass legislation curbing reservation shopping would mark the real threat to Indian sovereignty.

“If Congress does not give communities power proactively, and a fraction of the Indian casino proposals in the pipeline are approved without their input, the resulting outrage directed at Washington will force Congress to react,” he said in a written statement after the vote.

Pombo said Indian casinos have grown from a $200 million industry in the 1980s to $23 billion today.

One authority on Indian gaming called the defeat of the Pombo bill a “clear but perhaps short-lived victory for the advocates of Indian gaming-related interests and advocates of tribal sovereignty.”

Steven Light, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota, said he expects Congress eventually to pass restrictions on off-reservation gaming.

He said there may be an attempt to rework the Pombo bill and pass it when Congress comes back for a session after the November election.

Observers said they weren’t sure why a majority of Democrats banded together against the bill, even though it was co-sponsored by Rep. Nick Rahall II, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat on the Resources Committee.

Several said election-year politics played a role.

“Democrats have tended to be greater advocates for tribal sovereignty and tribal interests” than Republicans, Light said.