Sunday, February 9, 2003

Tribes facing gambling hurdles

State recognition, laws required

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to Indian gambling in 1987, followed a year later by an act of Congress, bingo and casino operations have generated billions in revenue for the tribes operating them.

But an American Indian tribe that wants to set up gambling in Ohio would face a complex set of government hurdles. Among them:

A tribe must be federally recognized in the state where it seeks to locate gambling operations. Although Ohio has some tribal groups, none has federal recognition. Without recognition, these tribes aren't considered sovereign nations, and therefore are ineligible to use gambling for economic purposes, says Jacob L. Coin, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Nations Indian Gaming Association, an organization of Indian tribes with gaming rights.

Recognition is a tedious process and outcomes are unpredictable. In the past two years, only one group, a consolidation of two tribes - in Connecticut - has been granted recognition. That group reportedly has plans to open a casino.

A tribe must prove it has historical ties to the land it seeks to build on. Such ties could be established by proving its ancestors once resided there and left voluntarily because of white incursion, or were forced out by government relocation.

The state legislature must enact laws allowing casino-style gaming. Such efforts are gaining momentum in Ohio, as other nearby states draw gamblers and tax revenue away with their casinos, and legislators struggle to close a budget gap that could reach $4 billion over the next two years. But Gov. Bob Taft remains firmly opposed to casino gambling, and chances that lawmakers will enact pro-gambling legislation are uncertain at best.

The governor, with the approval of the legislature, can negotiate an agreement with the tribe, called a state-tribal compact. Ohio law provides for such a compact, outlining payment of state and local taxes, and other fees.

But if Gov. Taft refused to negotiate a state-tribal compact, a tribe could proceed with a casino anyway - without having to pay state or local taxes.

Of the 313 tribes operating gambling venues across the country, 249 have state-tribal compacts, according to the National Indian Gaming Association, in Washington. Tribes can appeal to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, when the governor of a state refuses to negotiate an agreement.

"That is an alternative plan for the tribe, but they do not want to have to go through with that," says Tom Schnippel of Botkins, spokesman for a tribe that seeks to locate a casino in Ohio.

Tribes indigenous to Ohio include the Delaware, Miami, Shawnee, Iroquois and Wyandot.

During last year's General Assembly session, Sen. Louis Blessing, R-Colerain Township, proposed placing video lottery terminals (VLTs) at Ohio's seven racetracks. The machines, which can be programmed to play simulated slots, blackjack, keno, bingo and other "virtual" casino games, would be used to help the racetracks remain competitive.

The bill barred actual table and card games such as roulette, craps and poker, but didn't make it through both houses before the end of last year's session. Dan Reinhard, Blessing's legislative aide, says it isn't clear whether the bill will be reintroduced.

But state Sen. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, believes proponents of the bill will try again this session.

A critic of the proposal and casino gambling, Jordan anticipates the bill will come up in the next five months as legislators negotiate the proposed state budget.

"VLTs are like a dark cloud hanging over our heads," he says. "They're always there and you never know when the rain is going to start. ... It happened twice last session, and we were able to beat it. But it'll be back."

State Rep. Tom Niehaus, R-New Richmond, says legislators are going to have to determine exactly what role, if any, gambling will play in filling Ohio's budget deficit.

"We know that upward of 60 percent of the people patronizing the casinos in southeastern Indiana are coming from Ohio," Niehaus says. "So we already have Ohioans who are gambling."


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