When the Coeur d’Alene Tribe first signed a gaming compact with the state of Idaho in 1992, tribal leaders insisted on donating 5 percent of net casino gaming proceeds to education on or near their reservation – a gesture that has added up to $16.8 million in donations since 1994, including $1.5 million this year and $1.8 million last year.
“The tribe originated the idea,” said David High, the now-retired deputy Idaho attorney general who for years oversaw negotiations with the state’s Indian tribes over gaming. “They didn’t have to do it.”
In fact, High said, the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act forbids states from taxing or assessing any kind of fees on the proceeds of tribal gaming. “Congress intended the tribes to get the financial benefit of Indian gaming and did not want the states trying to take a piece of that,” he said.
But in the case of the Coeur d’Alenes, “The tribe has agreed to it is the thing,” High said.
Later, the tribe wrote the 5 percent contribution into a tribal gaming initiative that Idaho voters strongly approved in 2002, prompting two other Idaho tribes, the Kootenai and Nez Perce, to add it to their compacts as well.
The biggest beneficiary of the Coeur d’Alenes’ donations has been the beleaguered Plummer-Worley School District, which has received $3.125 million, including $110,000 this year and $110,000 last year. The second-biggest beneficiary was the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School in DeSmet, which got $2.8 million.
“We’ve been very grateful for it – it’s helped us out an awful lot, helped our students,” said Judi Sharrett, Plummer-Worley superintendent. This year, the tribe’s contribution to Plummer-Worley made up 2.4 percent of the school district’s budget.
The district is one of the state’s poorest; it’s the only one for which the state has had to force a property tax increase after local voters repeatedly refused to approve a bond to replace a condemned elementary school.
“They’re close and a lot of our kids go there,” said Helo Hancock, the tribe’s legislative liaison, adding, “There’s certainly a need there.”
Ernie Stensgar, the longtime Coeur d’Alene tribal chairman and current vice chairman who signed the original gaming compact with the state, said, “I think we wanted to really give people a good look at who we were. And giving is part of our culture.”
That’s a tradition that stretches far back into the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s history, from helping out starving and freezing white settlers in pioneer times to the cultural tradition of handing out blankets, shawls, drums and bandannas at tribal events.
The Nez Perce and tiny Kootenai tribes also have taken pride in their donations since 2002, and note that like the Coeur d’Alenes, they’ve given more than the required 5 percent and have supported many causes, including college scholarships, social programs, wildlife restoration and local kindergarten classes.
But the success of the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, which has made the tribe the second-largest employer in North Idaho, behind only Kootenai Medical Center, has prompted some grumbling in recent years over who got how much of the education money. That’s prompted the tribe to stop holding formal ceremonies announcing the donations for the past two years, which led to speculation that the tribe no longer was making them.
“I know in the recent years they just haven’t wanted to make a big showing about it,” said state Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who chairs the Idaho Council on Indian Affairs.
In August, the Coeur d’Alene Press reported that schools in the region, including Plummer-Worley, hadn’t gotten contributions from the tribe in two years, though the same newspaper had published an article in January noting that the district had included grant funds from the casino in its budget. The Idaho Lottery issued a statement saying the tribe had met its 5 percent requirement and had been “good stewards of their gaming activities and generous neighbors to the communities on or near the reservation as well as to other good causes.”
Said Hancock, “We challenge anybody to find another organization who gives more to the community than the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.” He called suggestions that the tribe wasn’t keeping its 5 percent promise “ridiculous and offensive.”
The hubbub prompted a series of public records requests to the Idaho Lottery Commission, the agency designated to oversee tribal gaming in the state. Most sought a breakdown of who got how much money from the Coeur d’Alenes’ 5 percent donations, but the lottery doesn’t have that information. Both the tribe’s compact with the state and the 2002 initiative say the donations are handed out “at the sole discretion of the tribe.”
The only information the tribes hand over to the Lottery Commission is their audited financial statement, which shows the 5 percent figure, along with other proprietary information about their gaming operations, such as, in some cases, background checks on employees and information about security procedures. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s compact with the state exempts from public disclosure information it submits to the state under the trade secrets clause of Idaho Public Records Law.
Compacts between the state and the other tribes contain similar trade-secrets confidentiality provisions.
High noted that the Coeur d’Alenes’ donations to the communities around them stood them in good stead when then-Gov. Phil Batt convened a task force in 1997 to hold hearings around the state to determine whether Idahoans still wanted to allow gambling on Indian reservations. Despite a membership that included a host of gambling opponents, the task force voted narrowly in favor of allowing limited reservation casinos to continue operating.
“At the hearings, we had local government people coming in, saying how gaming had benefited their communities,” High said. “So it was obviously really a wise move on their part.”
In 2002, when he was a candidate for Congress, Gov. Butch Otter endorsed the tribal gaming initiative.
Idaho’s once-destitute Indian tribes have thrived since they added gambling operations. Unemployment among Coeur d’Alene tribal members before the casino was as high as 70 percent, while now there are more jobs than tribal members on the reservation. Among all residents of the reservation, including non-Indians, unemployment has dropped by half from 11.3 percent in 1990 to 5.2 percent, on average, between 2005 and 2009, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.
Hancock said the tribe now employs nearly 2,000 people, including 1,300 at the casino; nearly 70 percent are non-Indians.
The Coeur d’Alenes have used gaming proceeds to invest in programs for senior citizens, offer college scholarships to youth, improve housing and health programs, purchase land on the reservation, establish veterans programs and more. The reservation has the nation’s first Indian health clinic that also serves non-Indians. “There are so many impacts,” Stensgar said. “I think there’s more of a pride in our people – I can see that.”
He said the tribe wanted to demonstrate that it would use gaming proceeds to “enhance not only tribal people, but all the other people that lived around us, and that promise hasn’t been broken – we have done that, and we are still doing that.”