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Kootenai Tribe Plays New Card In Gambling Fight Offers To Help Boundary County Schools If Reform Bill Fails

The Kootenai Tribe has raised the stakes in the fight over efforts to curb some forms of Indian gaming.

On Thursday, the tribe offered $93,000 to Boundary County’s struggling school district.

However, in the high-risk world of gambling, you don’t get something for nothing. The schools get the money only if Gov. Phil Batt’s gaming reform effort fails.

“It is contingent on the outcome of the vote,” said Velma Bahe, Kootenai tribal chairperson. “We didn’t just do it for votes, we wanted to show legislators that we have the potential (to be charitable).”

Numerous members of the tribe appeared in the Senate State Affairs Committee meetings this week. Tribal members pointed out that gaming was helping their previously impoverished nation to earn money and create new jobs.

So far, the tribe has used money made in its Kootenai River Inn gaming hall to build a medical clinic and to operate a tribal welfare and employment program. Now the tribe is making clear that the benefits could extend beyond reservation boundaries.

But only if legislators play their cards right.

Several tribes have called the governor’s bill hypocritical.

“You try and hold us down and we don’t know why,” said Dave Matheson, CEO of tribal gaming operations. “We operate only the same games as the state of Idaho operates.”

Lately, the tribes have used newspaper and television ads to express their desire to keep video gaming. The television campaign claims that gaming has cut unemployment on reservations by nearly 50 percent.

The ads also claim that $650,000 has been raised through tribal gaming for the benefit of public and tribal schools. In fact, the Coeur d’Alene tribe recently gave $200,000 to public schools, another $200,000 to tribal schools and $100,000 to higher education.

And the ads have paid off. The phones in the governor’s office have been ringing like well-paying slot machines; most callers voice support for tribal gaming.

The offer to the Boundary County schools is a final effort to gain public support, the Kootenai Tribe said. The amount offered equals the school district’s estimated deficit for this school year.

“We would essentially be able to meet our budget needs instead of making cuts in school supplies,” said Boundary County Superintendent Reid Straabe.

“I believe it will generate the support for the intent of public gaming originally served … which was to generate money for public schools and communities,” he said.

But the tribe’s offer has not changed the governor’s opinion. He still supports the bill that effectively would end the tribe’s video gambling, said Frank Lockwood, the governor’s press secretary.

The Senate State Affairs Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill today.

, DataTimes