Despite casino setbacks, Indian clout rises

Voters reject a casino bid in Maine, and California's incoming governor wants to see tribes pay more to state.

In Maine, the most expensive campaign in state history leads to defeat for a mammoth $650 million Indian-run casino. In California, the early front-runner in the gubernatorial recall - Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante - nosedives in the polls with revelations of $8 million in contributions from state tribes. Eventual winner Arnold Schwarzenegger leapfrogs rivals - with one of his campaign pledges to go after native Americans' $6 billion in casino revenues to ease the budget crisis.

The high-profile setbacks for casinos both belie and spotlight a trend on the rise since 1988, when Congress approved rules for Indian gaming as a way for tribes to build community-development funds. For many of the 201 tribes that approved gaming, there followed a dramatic rise in income, employment rates, and quality of life. But even as it raises fortunes and helps many ascend from poverty, the movement is raising eyebrows - and fear of Indians' clout.

The National Indian Gaming Commission estimates about $12.7 billion in gaming revenue in the nation's 321 Indian casinos. With those gains comes a "concerted increase in attempts to wield influence in government, elections, voting, and public policy," says David Wilkins, a professor of native American history at the University of Minnesota.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, native Americans' contributions began soaring just two years after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) passed in 1988. Federal candidates have seen a 40-fold increase in contributions from Indian gaming interests since 1990, helping win Senate seats for two native Americans and aiding congressional and gubernatorial candidacies. Native Americans are considered a key constituency in battleground states for next year's congressional and presidential elections.

Political clout "is something American Indian tribes have coveted for years," says Jason McCarty, spokesman for the National Congress of American Indians. "Casino operations have helped give it to them."

But the higher profile is also producing a backlash, with more organized opposition to Indian interests and a spotlight on their money flow. In California, tribes spent over $50 million promoting two initiatives that eliminated competition for the state's Indian casinos. And tribes' influence was a main point of contention in the recent gubernatorial recall.

"Indian tribes have spent $130 million in the last six years, which is more than any other special-interest group," says Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause. "There has been all kinds of legislation regarding gambling regulations that routinely works in the favor of Indians."

Partly because of such comments and voters' heightened awareness of the influence of Indian contributions, it is more and more common for politicians to trumpet their rejection of such funds - as Schwarzenegger did. He and others have also made moves to go after tribes' income by negotiating or renegotiating the tribe-state compacts required by federal law. Such actions are arousing ire among tribes who feel their operations should be sovereign entities.

"States all over are beginning to think of Indian tribes as their piggy banks to bail [states] out of financial crises," says Mr. Wilkins. He notes that the US Supreme Court paved the way for the legitimacy of Indian casinos with a 1987 decision finding that, because states can operate lotteries to raise money, Indians can operate gambling halls. "State revenues are not what the casino operations are for," he adds. "They are for ... development of tribal communities."

Here in California, the compacts have been decided largely by two initiatives passed in 1998 and 2000 - pushed forward after former Gov. Pete Wilson refused to negotiate compacts with the Indian tribes. Both arrangements gave Indians a better deal than they might have gotten otherwise. Governor-elect Schwarzenegger is looking to change those agreements. But first, he has to wait until existing compacts expire, entice Indians back to the negotiating table, or launch new compacts with new tribes.

The result could be a statewide increase in gaming operations, because one way to bring tribes back to the table is to offer expanded slot-machine operations - big moneymakers for the tribes.

"Governor-elect Schwarzenegger wants to renegotiate these compacts so that both sides can get something from the deal," says spokesman Darrell Ng. Of 28 states that allow Indian gaming, only six have revenue-sharing agreements, according to Karla Nicholas of the National Indian Gaming Association. Most notable is Connecticut, where tribes give roughly 25 percent of casino income to the state - $280 million last year. A similar percentage would bring in over $1 billion for California.

If Schwarzenegger pursues the Connecticut model, the profile of Indian gambling will likely keep looming large. Observers say support for tribes rises with perceptions that gambling is a way to address historic injustices - but drops when Indians push the notion of "sovereignty," claiming exemptions from taxes, environmental regulations, and other laws.

To some, that's the lesson from Maine's vote. And it worries tribes in Massachusetts, where three large casinos are in the offing. Despite millions spent by Maine tribes to sell the idea of community development, jobs, and income from the proposed casino, rival factions raised $9 million to defeat it, and the measure lost by a 64-36 percent margin.

To many Indians, such votes mean an inestimable loss. "These gaming operations are a win for Indians and everyone elsel," says Kurt Luger, head of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association. "Just when Native Americans are beginning to turn their plight around, everyone wants to come along and squash us or take a piece of our pie."

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