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BILL would give state legislatures veto power on casinos

Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Indian tribes that want to build casinos would need approval of their state legislature, not just governors, under legislation introduced Tuesday.

While the bill argues simply for equity between the executive and legislative branches, its sponsors _ Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Frank Wolf, R-Va. _ said flatly they're trying to give states more ways to stop casinos.

The bigger problem, they said, is the federal tribal recognition process, which paves the way to casino negotiations. Politics and money, they said, too often influence decisions.

But Shays said a bill to revamp that process is awaiting a General Accounting Office report due later this summer.

``I just want the process to be fair,'' said Shays, whose state has two Indian casinos and a half-dozen other tribes proposing them. ``I want the process to be honest, unlike the way it has been dealt with by political appointees under the former administration.''

Wolf said state legislatures could offset the power wielded by outside investors.

``In essence, tribes have become pawns for the powerful gaming interests,'' he said. ``Only through the state legislatures are the interests of specific localities accounted for.''

Currently, federally recognized tribes must negotiate a compact with states before building a casino. In most states, those pacts are negotiated with the governor.

In addition to involving state legislatures, the bill proposes ``minimum federal standards'' for security, game integrity, accounting and auditing. Also, a commission would be created to review living standards on reservations and the influence of organized crime on Indian gambling.

John Dossett, attorney for the National Congress of American Indians, said it's up to states to decide how they want to negotiate compacts.

``This is really setting up a pretty major hurdle,'' he said. ``I don't know why the federal government needs to get involved. It's a matter of state law.''

Shays said states need this law because ``the federal government has imposed Indian gaming on them.''

The National Indian Gaming Association also took issue with the bill, saying tribal casinos are already well-regulated. The Mohegan tribe, for example, spent $15 million on regulatory costs in 1998 for its Mohegan Sun casino in eastern Connecticut.

``Maybe Congress should focus its attention on state lotteries, where there is no federal oversight,'' NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. said in a news release.

Wolf and Shays said they spoke to Attorney General John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary Gale Norton about their bill, but have yet to receive their support. Officials from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which can bury bills it doesn't like, did not return a call seeking comment.

A White House spokesman said the administration is unlikely to take a position on the bill until it reaches the floor.

Connecticut is particularly concerned about casino gambling. Twelve tribes or factions of tribes currently seek recognition. Two others, the Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegan tribes, have the status. Both operate successful casinos in the state.

The Eastern Pequot and Paucatuck Eastern Pequot tribes in North Stonington and the Nipmuc tribe, with ties to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, already have preliminary recognition and are pursuing casino plans.

Under federal law, the right to operate a casino is reserved for tribes in continuous existence as distinct political and social communities since first contact with Europeans centuries ago.

Critics say the recognition decisions of Clinton administration appointees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs were influenced by campaign contributions to Democrats.

The Golden Hill Paugussetts hope to build a $1 billion casino in Bridgeport. The recognition petition from the Paugussetts, initially rejected, is being reviewed.

Shays claims the petition was re-opened after the Paugussetts' casino developer ``helped bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the (U.S. Sentate) campaign of Hillary Clinton.''

``They were rejected twice and then they were resurrected because of political contributions,'' Shays said.

Clinton's Senate office did not return a phone call and e-mail seeking comment.

The Paugussetts issued a statement saying Shays' proposal is ``blatantly discriminatory'' against the tribe. Chief Quiet Hawk said ``continuing interference'' by Shays and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal could force the tribe to file additional land claims.

``We have no desire to do this, but when elected representatives continue to place their own agendas ahead of the welfare of the people of the cities of Connecticut, we must consider all available options,'' he said.

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