Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Obama's policies help Indians, but payback is iffy

Published: Sunday, Jul. 15, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 15, 2012 - 10:25 am

President Barack Obama has gone out of his way to try to make amends for America's history of genocidal treatment of Indians.

That's understandable, morally and politically. In this election year, Obama will need all the help he can get. So far, however, tribes that have accumulated wealth from their casinos have not come to his aid, though that could change.

Some tribes, and some of Obama's allies, notably Sen. Dianne Feinstein, are alarmed by administration decisions that could lead to more Indian-owned casinos.

California is a very different place than Obama's state of Illinois, which has no recognized tribes. California has 109 tribes and 67 Indian-owned casinos.

"Enough is enough," Feinstein, no fan of gambling, told me. "Sixty casinos, it seems to me, is enough, more than enough."

The Obama administration has loosened rules for tribes seeking to enter the business, perhaps opening the way for casinos on Highway 99 in Madera County, near the Sleep Train Amphitheatre in Yuba County, in the small town of Plymouth, and even in Napa Valley.

Voters have granted tribes monopolies to operate Nevada-style casinos on their reservations. Most tribes did build on existing reservations.

But because of Interior Department decisions, some tribes and their financial backers are buying tracts closer to population centers, leapfrogging tribes that built on land that long ago was placed into trust.

"There is a new modus operandi, which is to try to move into more urban areas. That causes me a lot of concern," Feinstein said.

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision barring the Interior Department from creating reservations for tribes that were not recognized as of 1934, to the dismay of some tribes. The administration has sought legislation that would overturn that decision.

Feinstein has fought a legislative fix, but likely would relent if she gains support for her legislation to restrict new casinos to land where tribes historically dwelt and near where they now reside.

Established tribes share Feinstein's worries about off-reservation casinos, though for different reasons. Tribes that have operations in relatively remote locations – think Cache Creek in Capay Valley – would lose market share if a new casino were to open in, say, Napa County.

"I understand that the intentions of the administration are to help tribes. But it may be shortsighted," said Sacramento attorney Howard Dickstein, who represents several tribes including the owners of Thunder Valley Casino east of Sacramento. "When you extend sovereignty, it dilutes sovereignty, which is a danger to the status of all tribes."

Obama's efforts to make reparations to tribes extends beyond relaxing rules related to gambling. In addition to taking symbolic steps, like inviting tribal leaders to the White House, he has gotten them money by directing stimulus money to tribes.

In April, Attorney General Eric Holder and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar settled lawsuits by 41 tribes over the federal government's mismanagement of tribal funds, paying them $1 billion. Settlement talks began in 2009 after Obama took office.

"These important settlements reflect President Obama's continuing commitment to ensuring empowerment and reconciliation for American Indians," Salazar said at the time.

Obama's most important domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Importantly, it exempts tribal members from the individual mandate, the provision that requires most people to buy health insurance or pay a tax if they fail to do so.

Additionally, the administration sided with tribes in court, including one in which the Rincon band of San Diego County won a ruling that blocks California from extracting taxes in exchange for authorizing casino expansion. The ruling could save tribes – and cost the state – hundreds of millions in annual payments.

"He has done an amazing job in Indian country," said Tom Rodgers, a Blackfeet Indian, and lobbyist who represents several California tribes and the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington, D.C.

Rodgers said he intends to help raise money for the president, though Obama maintains a policy of not accepting donations or direct fundraising help from lobbyists.

Rodgers notes Indians can help in ways other than by giving money. If they vote in blocs, they could turn elections in New Mexico and perhaps Nevada, both of which Obama must win to be re-elected.

Tribes' hearts may go out to Obama. But for now, their wallets have remained closed. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics finds that after collecting $118,000 for his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama has raised $140,000 to $15,000 for presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, specks compared to the hundreds of millions each candidate will raise by November.

Kilma Lattin, a member of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, owners of a San Diego County casino, has formed the Native American Republican Super PAC, and hopes to raise money for Romney.

Lattin is a true believer in the Republican vision that fewer regulations and lower taxes would stimulate the economy, benefiting casino patrons and, therefore, casinos.

"Obama has done a good job with his outreach to tribes. And he has been generous with his policy on federal grants," Lattin said. "But this is about the handling of the economy. … Tribal nations that are serious about growing their economies have got to support candidates with viable plans to create growth."

Whatever his views now, Obama had been a skeptic if not an outright opponent of gambling when he started in politics in Illinois. For his part, Romney blocked a proposed casino when he was Massachusetts governor, in part because of his concerns about the social costs associated with gambling.

Just as casinos are big business, tribes are significant players, spending $20 million lobbying in Washington last year. Politicians know that some tribes have the ability to write $1 million checks, though generally they reserve such spending for campaigns that directly affect their bottom lines.

If tribes do write fat checks in this campaign, Obama stands to receive most of them. Loyalty counts in politics. Politician that he is, Obama has worked hard to engender loyalty.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Morain, Senior editor

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