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Friday, May 15, 2015

Tribal casino fight tests lobbying clout

Neon lights welcome gamblers to the Gila River Casino in Casa Blanca, Ariz. | AP
Neon lights welcome gamblers to the Gila River Casino in Casa Blanca, Ariz. | AP Photo

Tribal casino fight tests lobbying clout

Two Indian tribes locked in a six-year battle over the opening of a casino near Phoenix have spent millions on high-powered Washington lobbyists over the years to push Congress to side with them.
Now, one of the tribes, the Gila River Indian Community, which has a competing casino in the area, might finally win after intensive lobbying and support from Arizona Republicans. Committees in both the House and Senate recently passed the “Keep The Promise Act,” which would block the Tohono O’odham Nation from opening a casino in Glendale, Ariz. that is now under construction and supposed to open at year’s end. The measure could come to the floor for a vote in both chambers in coming weeks.

Gila River paid Akin Gump, a top Washington lobbying firm, nearly $1 million in the first quarter of this year alone. The firm, which has 22 lobbyists working on behalf of the tribe, has received at least $2.5 million each year from the tribe since 2012.
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By comparison, Tohono O’odham Nation, which has also ramped up its federal lobbying, spent more than $400,000 in the first quarter of the year and slightly more than $1 million on lobbying each year since 2012. It has retained lobbying firms Dentons, Gavel Resources and QGA Public Affairs.

More broadly, tribes have spent millions on lobbying the federal government each year on Indian gaming issues. Last year saw record spending on gaming-related lobbying with tribes shelling out $24.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Sponsors of the legislation, Arizona Republicans Rep. Trent Franks — whose district the casino falls in — and Sen. John McCain, have argued that the casino would mean “dangerous changes to the complexion of tribal gaming in other states across the country” and that casinos should not be “airdropped” into communities.

Gila River and other proponents of blocking the casino have also accused the Tohono O’odham Nation of misrepresenting their intentions while negotiating the state gaming compact in 2002, alleging that the voter-approved agreement does not allow for new casinos in the area. A federal judge rejected the argument saying new casinos may be built.

“The hardest thing has been to fight Akin Gump’s message,” said Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, an opponent of the bill who represents a neighboring district and sits on the House committee that has jurisdiction on the issue. “It’s hard to counter that because they are very effective.

The prevention of this casino has been a windfall economically for Akin Gump.”

In an interview, McCain blasted critics of the bill who have pointed out Gila River’s lobbying spending as a reason for the bill’s passage in committee. “I wrote the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, so therefore, I know the intent of Congress,” he said. “Anybody who alleges that somebody influences me – some lobbyists — that is an outrageous and disgraceful lie.”

And Gila River’s main lobbyist insists that the firm’s role in pushing the bill has been exaggerated. It’s first-quarter lobbying report for the tribe also lists other issues including appropriations for an irrigation project and health care facilities construction.

“This is a popular bill that has enjoyed broad support, and so it wouldn’t be accurate to imply that we are the reason it is moving forward,” said Don Pongrace, who heads the firm’s American Indian law and policy practice.

“We are working on many different projects for the community, so there tends to be a lot of overestimation of our efforts around this particular issue.”

The Congressional Budget Office recently projected that blocking the casino could cost taxpayers as little as nothing and as much as $1 billion, if Tohono O’odham Nation takes the government to court and a settlement is reached.

“There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that (Tohono O’odham Nation) is within the framework of the gaming act to do it, and it is a difficult issue,” said Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking member on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, who voted against the measure in committee.

“Trust me – it’s not one where anyone is going to win…We’ve got to get some legal minds to look at this. It maybe a fool’s errand on passing this bill.”

The casino fight, now in its sixth year, began when the federal government purchased a track of land and put it into trust for the tribe. The purchase was intended to compensate the tribe after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flooded part of its reservation.

Heather Sibbison, a lobbyist for the Tohono O’odham Nation, said Congress passing the measure to keep the tribe from opening the casino would be unprecedented.

“We have been pointing out for a very long time that if Congress enacts this bill, it would be the first time that Congress reneges on an Indian land and water settlement in the modern era — it would mark a very unfortunate return to the treaty-breaking era.”

In and outside Capitol Hill, the feud has drawn interesting bedfellows. Local tea party chapters and unions have supported the casino, as state officials continue to oppose it. And Arizona Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick has also joined the Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation to co-sponsor the legislation blocking the casino.

The city of Glendale itself, which previously opposed the casino, has now changed its mind after negotiating a deal with the tribe that would give the city $1.4 million every year for 10 years.

The Obama administration opposes legislation blocking the casino, meaning the path forward for measure will likely be being tucked in legislation President Barack Obama wouldn’t want to veto, making the issue even more politically-charged.

“The more the courts have ruled in favor of the Nation, the harder certain members of Congress have pushed to change the law on which the courts have relied,” Sibbison said. “It makes it pretty clear that this is about politics and not about substance.”

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