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Tribal Leaders Attack Gambling Bills Lawmakers Want Agreements Subject To Legislative Approval

Two bills to limit Indian gambling operations were met with objections by tribal leaders at a public hearing Monday.

One bill would reverse agreements signed by Gov. Mike Lowry last month, which allowed tribes to expand certain types of gambling. The other makes any future agreements subject to review by the Legislature.

Sponsors of the measures rebuked Lowry and the Gambling Commission for allowing tribes to extend gambling hours and increase bet limits without the blessing of lawmakers.

“We are the policy makers, and our policy has not been followed, it has not even been listened to,” said Sen. Lorraine Wojahn, D-Tacoma, sponsor of the bill that would require the Legislature to approve future agreements.

The agreement signed by the governor in January allows tribes to have up to 50 gaming stations, such as roulette wheels, blackjack tables or other devices. The agreement also extended tribal gambling operations to as many as 140 hours a week and upped betting limits to $500.

Sen. Mike Heavey, D-Seattle, has introduced a bill to reverse the January agreement, returning to previous levels of 80 hours a week and $100 per bet.

Tribal leaders at Monday’s hearing accused legislators of hypocrisy for cracking down on Indian gambling operations.

“The public policy of the state is to allow tavern and bar owners to use gambling to peddle alcohol, to yield to the horse-racing industry by providing every economic incentive available,” said John Keiffer, vice chairman of the Spokane tribe.

“Why is it that this 20-year pattern of undaunted expansion must now somehow be halted simply because tribal governments have the opportunity to end poverty and unemployment on Indian lands?” Kieffer asked.

Some tribes, including the Spokane, have refused to sign agreements with the state which place limits on gambling. The matter is complicated by questions of the state’s authority to enforce restrictions on Indian lands, which are considered independent in many respects.

The Spokane tribe is in the midst of a legal dispute over its use of slot machines, which the state contends is a violation of state law. The tribe lost the first round in U.S. District Court, but continues to operate the slot machines while the matter is on appeal.

Sen. Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, said a balance must be struck between the independence of the tribes and the state’s interest in limiting gambling within its boundaries.

Pelz, who chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce and Trade Committee also sponsored a measure that would force operators of pull-tabs to place the machines out of sight of children, a proposal that drew fire at the hearing from owners of bowling alleys around the state, which rely on the devices to make profits.

A couple of bowling alley owners also stuck around to testify in favor of the bills restricting gambling on Indian reservations. They said the Indian operations already have cost them plenty of business.

“I’ve had to lay people off,” said Dave Storkson, owner of a bowling alley in Anacortes. “Our business doesn’t even compare to theirs.”