Politics & Government

Indian gambling opponents criticize proposed change to federal tribe recognition

Opponents of Indian gambling and local California officials are pushing back against a proposed federal rule that would simplify the recognition of American Indian tribes.

At stake is a potential surge of new casinos in the state, which critics of the federal changes argue would damage local communities.

“Clearly the incentive for federal recognition is gaming expansion,” said Cheryl Schmit, director of the gambling policy group Stand Up for California. “These new tribes will be shopped by gaming investors” seeking access to California. “What do they care about the state’s gaming policies?”

Stand Up for California released a report Wednesday warning that lowering the historical standard for the tribal recognition would have a ripple effect in California, where 109 recognized tribes operate 71 gambling facilities and another 68 groups are awaiting decisions on their applications for federal acknowledgment.

The report estimated that the proposed rule change could lead to the rapid recognition of 34 more Indian tribes in California, resulting in another 22 casinos. Those newly recognized tribal governments would also be able to assert ownership over state lands, it added, removing them from land-use rules and local laws.

“When you take land out of the regulatory authority of the state and off the land rolls, there is a loss not only of property tax revenue, but also of what businesses could have been developed there,” Schmit said.

American Indian groups are formally recognized by the federal government if they meet a series of criteria showing that they are a social community with political influence descended from a historical tribe. This grants them the right to certain federal services, as well as sovereign immunity, trust land that is exempt from state and local taxation and regulation, and the ability to open casinos.

The policy change, announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior in May, would shorten the period of evaluation for a group’s historical roots so that political authority must only be demonstrated dating back to 1934, when Indian tribes were first recognized as political entities by federal authorities, rather than to the establishment of the U.S. government in 1789.

It would also lower the portion of a tribe’s membership that must make up the “community” to 30 percent, and allow previously rejected groups to reapply for recognition.

Alan Meister, an economist who studies tribal casinos, cautioned that it’s too early to tell how quickly things might change under the new proposed rules. The current process can take decades for the government to formally acknowledge a tribe, and years more for the tribe to reach an agreement with the state to built a casino.

Even without paying taxes, “tribes contribute in other ways,” Meister added. “There are jobs and other services that are benefiting” both the reservation and the surrounding community when gambling facilities are built.

But local California officials expressed concern that the rule change would limit their authority over land use in their communities and their ability to deal with the effects of new casino development on the environment, public safety and service demands.

“Our county has always been opposed to gaming,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said on a conference call. “We think there are many other economic development ideas that could be successful” for tribes instead.

Sonoma County has five tribes and two casinos, as well as two more American Indian groups that could be recognized under the new federal rules. Rabbitt urged Congress to take a closer look at the regulations so that the consequences of the changes are fully understood.

“The impacts are local, and they need to be mitigated at the local level,” he said. “We just want to have a place at the table.”