It has a staff of 31, and its six investigators have to operate out of their homes, or as one staffer put it Thursday, “their car trucks.”
Yet these six people are supposed to regulate what has become a $6 billion-a-year industry: gaming on Indian reservations.
Officials of the tiny National Indian Gaming Commission conceded they cannot visit all the Native American casinos, much less effectively watch over an industry that is growing rapidly. Without new revenues “we’re going to crash and burn,” said Philip N. Hogen, a commission member. “… It’s curtains.”
Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee appeared responsive to the seven-year-old commission’s plight and promised to pass legislation that would funnel more money into the agency. Leaders of several tribes, worried about the commission having too much power, urged the committee to limit the agency’s funding, most of which would come from increased fees on the 279 gaming operations Native Americans run in 28 states.
But Sen. Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., expressed concern that the agency is not asking for enough money and sees its role more as a “cheerleader” for Indian gaming operations than a regulator. “You can’t be telling the tribes they’re doing a bang-up job,” Reid said after commission members painted a rosy view of Native American gambling operations.
Reid was unimpressed with the commission’s claim that 35 percent of the 186 tribes with gaming operations are in compliance with the agency’s regulations, saying that “isn’t very good.” He said the agency should “get all the money it needs” and urged it to adopt a policy of “maximum intrusion” on gaming operations to ensure that the games are being operated properly.
The commission is operating on a budget of $4.3 million and has enough surplus funds to keep it going until the end of fiscal 1998. Thereafter it faces a crisis, commission officials said, adding that the agency needs about $12 million a year to add another 46 accountants and inspectors.
When Congress authorized the agency’s creation in 1988, Indian gaming was a $100 million-ayear industry, and Congress capped the fees gaming operators had to pay at $1.5 million a year. Since those fees are largely based on Class II gaming operations, such as bingo games, the bigger casino operations, which pose greater regulatory problems, do not contribute to the commission, the officials said.
A Clinton administration proposal would require larger gaming operations to contribute to the fund, but would limit the amount of funds the commission could collect - a provision that alarms some of the tribes, which say their tribal and state governments already regulate their gaming operations.
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