The Spokanes and two other disgruntled Indian tribes filed an initiative Tuesday that essentially pays voters to support high-stakes casinos on Washington reservations.
The tribes’ sales pitch offers voters a cut of annual gambling profits - which the tribes estimate will be about $100 per voter per year.
A state gambling official cautions that the proposal is a dangerous invitation to wide-open, Nevada-style gaming that could easily spread from the reservations to cities.
The unusual initiative is modeled in part after the Alaskan Permanent Fund, which gives all residents an annual share of that state’s oil sales.
Ten percent of the annual tribal gambling profits would be disbursed to registered voters in the last statewide general election.
John Kieffer, vice chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, called the proposal “a partnership deal with the voting people of the state of Washington.”
Kieffer and other tribal leaders say the initiative is not designed to buy votes, but rather to cut voters in on a wise business deal.
Frank Miller, director of the state Gambling Commission, said voters need to understand the consequences of unrestricted gambling.
“What it does is open the state to full-blown Nevada gambling,” he said. “In my view it’s very shortsighted.”
Miller said the initiative springs from the frustrations of the three tribes that have declined to strike a gaming deal with the state.
“(The initiative) is set forth by the tribes that haven’t been able to work with the state of Washington… It pretty much guts the current regulatory programs in the state and the tribes that have been working with us.”
If the initiative passes, Miller predicts other non-Indian businesses will lobby hard for the same gambling rights off the reservations.
At a news conference at the Sheraton-Spokane Hotel, leaders of the Spokane, Puyallup and Shoalwater Bay tribes called the initiative a needed jobs program and an economic boost for poor tribes.
“Resources are starting to dry up,” said Herb Whitish, chairman of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. “We’re here about education. We’re here about jobs. We’re here about survival.”
Whitish said the Shoalwaters will use the gambling profits to improve education and health care, and to become less dependent on the federal government.
Whitish also said state leaders are full of double-talk on the gambling issue.
“Their rhetoric is riddled with nothing but hypocrisy,” he said, noting the state runs a $2.5 billion lottery.
“If they’re against gaming I believe they’re only against Indian gaming.”
For years, Washington tribes have battled the state over what games they can offer, the number of tables and hours. Nine tribes reached gambling compacts, settling for limited hours and games.
The Spokane and Colville tribes are suing the state and have forged ahead with slot machines and long hours.
Tribal leaders could not explain how they calculated their estimated $100 annual bounty to state voters, noting they will discuss the money at a later news conference.
About 1.7 million people voted in November’s statewide election. To afford passing out $100 to each of those voters, annual tribal gaming profits would have to be about $1.7 billion under the proposed financial arrangement.
The tribes must collect nearly 190,000 signatures to get the initiative on November’s ballot.
Wayne Mehl, a lobbyist for the Nevada Resorts Association, said expanded gambling on Indian or non-Indian lands tends to have an immediate windfall, but that business slows once the novelty fades.
“The ones that are stuck out in the boonies only do well if there’s no place else to go,” he said.
“If you’re in a tribe in Palm Springs your in great shape. If you’re hundred miles out of Minneapolis that’s not the case.”
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