Debate on tribal casinos reveals a chasm of disagreement.
The two largest casinos in the world--of any kind, not just Indian-owned--sit on tribal lands in Connecticut. The Mashantucket Pequot Foxwood and the Mohegan Sun took $3 billion from gamblers last year. Sixty percent (about 200) of tribes in the lower 48 states have casinos. They grossed $14.5 billion last year. Indian gambling provides 300,000 jobs. It pays $100 million a year in local taxes, $1.5 billion in state taxes, and $4.5 billion a year in payroll and other federal taxes.
Mark Van Norman of the National Indian Gaming Association provided statistics and heartily defended tribal gambling. He waved the "sovereignty" argument (tribes are sovereign entities and gambling is protected by that sovereignty) and the "New Buffalo" argument (white America took away Indians' livelihood and lifestyle without providing an adequate alternative, so the tribes are justified in embracing this new type of economic development).
He outlined the "social good" argument (income from the casinos is providing schools, health services, help for the elderly, and innumerable other benefits to tribal members shortchanged by the federal government) and the "charitable giving" argument (tribes getting rich from casinos not only revenue-share with states but help other tribes that have no casinos and, thus, no "new buffalo" to support themselves).
Jeff Benedict of the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion provided an opposing view. Casinos run by tribes, he said, differ little in practice from casinos run by commercial companies. But they do differ substantially in the rhetoric used to justify them.
The tribes may be sovereign, he said, but the casinos are financed by wealthy entrepreneurs, sometimes from other countries. The two Connecticut casinos, he said, were paid for by investors, one from South Africa, the other from Malaysia. The Malaysian financier, Benedict said, demanded 29 percent interest, a usurious amount indeed.
Van Norman protested that the tribes were forced to go to foreign investors because U.S. banks wouldn't work with them. He later admitted it wasn't that U.S. banks wouldn't finance the casinos but rather that the American banks moved slower than the tribes would put up with.
Benedict said 12 tribes were lined up at the door of the Bureau of Indian Affairs seeking recognition, and five of them wanted to put casinos in Connecticut. U.S. Representative Rob Simmons, R-Conn., said that tribes were "reservation shopping" for good casino sites. Both weighed against the use of "tribal sovereignty" as a defense.
The two Connecticut tribes and their casinos have a huge hold on the market, Benedict said; they and a couple other strategically placed tribes account for most of the casino profits. Most other tribes, he and Simmons said, reap no casino money and have no practical chance of ever getting any because of their remote locations. Rich tribes may pass around a little of the wealth, they said, but not much.
Van Norman said that Congress, when it passed the Indian Gambling Regulatory Act in 1988, never suggested that every tribe would benefit. But in the case of some tribes, he said, the law was designed to make an important difference. The United States has many other income disparities, he said, that do not seem so glaringly in need of redistribution of wealth. Singling out Indian tribes and demanding that they share their revenues is unfair, he argued.
Benedict and Simmons outlined pressures they said the huge casinos place on infrastructure, the distortions they introduce into state and federal politics with large political contributions, and the negative social consequences on nearby communities. No one at the state or national level has studied where the billions go that are lost by suckers at the tribal casinos, Benedict said.
If you buy the ideal of tribal sovereignty as a justification, as laid out by Van Norman, little can be done about the location and operation of tribal casinos, about the inequities within and among tribes, about the influence of foreign investors, and the influence of casino-fueled contributions on U.S. politics. If you don't buy his argument--and Simmons and Benedict laid out some good reasons why Congress and the states should not--then those opposed to casino gambling in general and Indian-sponsored casino gambling in particular have both reason and room to fight.
Virginia Bensheimer is deputy editorial page editor at the Omaha World-Herald. E-mail Virginli.Bensheimer@owh.com