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Gambling: lousy only when the tribes make a buck?

On being asked at a recent town meeting for his views on Indian gambling operations, President Clinton spoke with a forked tongue: "Indian reservations have been kept dependent too long. ... (But) gambling is a lousy basis for an economy."

Clinton's low regard for the way some 58 tribes are generating nearly $6 billion this year in gambling revenues in 18 states is well out of line with the intent of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Giving tribes "the exclusive right to regulate gaming activity on Indian lands," the law requires that earnings from these legal businesses "promote tribal economic development, tribal self-sufficiency and strong tribal government."

That's largely how it's been working out. U.S. News & World Report stated in late August that "the vast majority" of the Indian casinos "are honest and clean." Such tribes as the Ojibwa of Minnesota, the Mashantucket Pequot of Connecticut and the Chippewa of Wisconsin suddenly have money to begin overcoming the impoverishments that have kept Indians in destitution for generations.

During his days as governor of Arkansas, Clinton wasn't heard to knock gambling operations there - parimutuel wagering on horse and dog races, plus off-track betting. Nor did he campaign for president against lotteries, slot machines, bingo, instant scratch games, golfing sweepstakes, Monte Carlo nights, excursion-boat gambling or any other legalized gaming that is bolstering the economies in 49 states. It's only an occasion for lousiness, it seems, when Indians are hauling it in.

The president's high-mindedness is one of many pressures felt by tribes that are finally enjoying the luck of the draw. Donald Trump, seeking better odds for his gambling joints, has sued the federal government for supposedly giving tribes regulatory breaks. There are several bills pending in Congress - proposed, unsurprisingly, by members from Nevada and New Jersey - that would weaken the 1988 law by allowing state-by-state restrictions on Indian gaming. Constitutionally and traditionally, protection of Indian rights has been a federal responsibility. The boys in Vegas and Atlantic City, it appears, want to keep as much of the take as they can for their high-rolling selves. A new law might be called the Donald Trump Protection Act.

The 1988 law was enacted after three years of intense once-overs - hearings, debates, compromises - by Congress. If it passed without much notice beyond Congress and the reservations, it was because few foresaw the huge economic boon that would befall the tribes. A study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin reports that 4,500 people - including 2,000 non-Indians - are employed by the 15 gaming facilities in that state. Fifty percent previously were unemployed and 20 percent were on welfare. The annual payroll is $68 million, with most of that spent in off-reservation stores and services.

Minnesota's 13 tribal casinos employ 9,975, with more than 75 percent non-Indians. The annual payroll is $116 million. In Michigan, the nearly 60,000 customers a week patronizing its eight casinos mostly buy gasoline locally, stay in local motels and eat in local restaurants.

When put together, the financial benefits represent what Clinton keeps saying he wants: an economic stimulus package. Well, here it is. For the first time in their nearly always disastrous relations with white leaders, tribal governments, which have sovereignty under federal law, have capital-producing businesses.

It's a tad late for moralizers to preach that money from these gambling operations is a breakdown in standards that shouldn't be sanctioned. That argument has never gone anywhere when applied to white-controlled gambling, of which the $6 billion that tribes are earning is a small fraction. Nor is there much of a history of whites declaring that it's morally unacceptable for Indians to suffer high rates of illiteracy, disease, unemployment, alcoholism and suicide.

No weakening of the 1988 law is needed, especially not for the benefit of Trump and his ilk. The dice were given a full and fair roll five years ago by Congress. Granted, gambling operations don't rank with the noblest of human pursuits. There is also the plague of gambling addiction. None of that overrides the entrepreneurial successes the tribes are now enjoying. The odds it would happen were a million-to-one.
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Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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