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Eye On Olympia

Lawmakers unhappy at “rewarding” last tribe to gamble without a state compact…

After more than a decade of court fights and a year of negotiation, Spokane tribal members told skeptical lawmakers Tuesday, an agreement allowing the Spokanes up to 4,700 slot-style machines at five sites would be a good deal for both the tribe and region.

The plan is a sign of a “new and positive relationship” between the state and tribe, tribal secretary Gerald Nicodemus (pictured, at microphone) told lawmakers.

Some lawmakers, however, didn’t sound so positive. They say the deal is too generous to the Spokanes, the only remaining gambling tribe in Washington without a state agreement. The state has long maintained that the tribe’s existing slot machines in its casinos in Chewelah and north of Davenport are illegal.

The proposed compact “rewards illegal operations and encourages a tremendous expansion of gambling,” said Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside.

The agreement, if approved by the governor and federal government, would not grant the tribe the right to develop a new casino on part of 145 acres of off-reservation land it owns near Airway Heights. That’s a separate decision that will start with federal officials and include the governor and Spokane County. One lawmaker opined Tuesday that the Spokane Tribe’s odds of winning that rare federal approval are “nil.”

Still, Nicodemus told lawmakers Tuesday, the state compact would help the tribe recover the self-sufficiency once supplied by its 3 million acres of ancestral lands. The gambling envisioned in the compact, he said, would pay for better education for the tribe’s children, better health care for its elders and a diversified reservation economy.

“This compact will be our best chance to impact our tribe’s future in a significant and historic way,” Nicodemus said.

Tribal attorneys, who point out that the state first asked for a state compact back in 1988, say the existing slot machines are and always have been legal.

“Our intent with this compact is to bury the hatchet, not to swing it,” said tribal attorney Scott Crowell.

Tribal gaming is a surging industry in Washington. It now accounts for nearly $1.2 billion of the state’s $1.8 billion in gambling, according to state gambling commission estimates. Tribal casino profits are now more than six times what the state collects from Washington’s lottery, and 12 times what the state gets from pull-tab sales.

Most of that growth has come from the machines, which have mushroomed from about 3,000 in 2001 to about 17,000 today.

“Where does that end?” said Rep. Richard Curtis, R-La Center.

In addition to allowing up to 4,700 machines, the Spokane compact includes some extras that other tribes haven’t gotten. It allows machines that are cash-fed, instead of forcing players to use paper tickets or plastic cards. And it allows high-stakes betting at limits set by the tribe.

“I can hear it coming: ‘Look what you did for the Spokanes,’ ” said Sen. Jim Clements, R-Selah, whose district includes the Yakama Tribe.

Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said she doesn’t like the high-rollers provision.

“It’s still real troublesome that you can leapfrog over (the other tribes) and have a real juicy plum that other tribes don’t have,” she told tribal members.

One tribal elder was clearly offended by the legislative resistance and by how little time was allowed for tribal members to speak.

“I came over here with a good heart,” said Jim Sijohn, who bristled at some of Prentice’s comments.

This is the compact’s second version. In 2005, the tribe and state negotiators settled on an agreement that would have allowed up to 7,500 machines, including 4,000 in a single casino. Some lawmakers balked, and Gregoire ordered the version scrapped.

Read the longer print version of this post here.


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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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