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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County ponders impact of new Indian casino

The Spokane County commission on Tuesday began to consider what impact a new casino near Airway Heights would have on the community one week before the first public hearing on the state’s proposed gaming compact with the Spokane Tribe.

The commissioners, who first heard only a couple of weeks ago that the state had negotiated a first-of-its-kind, revenue-sharing agreement with the Spokanes, decided at their regular Tuesday meeting to prepare a letter for the joint session of the House and Senate commerce and labor committees on Nov. 2 in Renton, Wash.

What that letter might say is anybody’s guess since commissioners are not quite sure what role the county will have in the compact’s approval process or whether they could stop the process if they wanted to.

“We could bring in a 10,000-pound gorilla, and I don’t see it keeping this from moving to the next level,” Commissioner Phil Harris said Tuesday.

But at least the county will have some say according to the compact worked out with the tribe and staff of the Washington state Gambling Commission. The Legislature will have no vote on the matter. Next Wednesday’s legislative hearing will only result in a recommendation to the Gambling Commission, which will decide on Nov. 17 whether to forward the compact to the governor.

“I find it absolutely amazing that you have a legislative committee meeting and a state Gambling Commission meeting, and neither one is anywhere near Spokane,” county Commissioner Todd Mielke said.

If the governor approves the compact, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, after consulting with state and local authorities, will have the final say in the matter.

Tribal casinos do not pay property taxes because they are on Indian trust land, but typically they pay impact fees to local governments because of the demands the facilities place on community services, such as police protection.

Under the Spokane tribal compact, the state would share 3 percent of the first $30 million of the tribe’s gross gambling receipts, minus prizes paid, 5 percent on the next $30 million, 10 percent of the next, up to a maximum of 35 percent of receipts greater than $210 million. One-quarter of the revenue-sharing funds would go to the county and other local governments.

The Spokane Tribe is the last in the state to negotiate a compact and the first to negotiate such a revenue-sharing plan. So what’s in it for the tribe?

They would have the right to operate up to five gaming facilities on tribal land with one of those casinos on nearly 108 acres on the western edge of Airway Heights. The Spokane tribal casino would be in direct competition with the Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest Casino, which pays only impact fees to Airway Heights and the county based on 2 percent of revenues from its table games.

The real money is in electronic gambling devices, or pseudo-slot machines. The Spokanes’ compact would permit the tribe to have up to 7,500 machines in its five facilities with 4,000 at one location, presumably the proposed Airway Heights casino since it will be the closest to a population center.

By comparison, the state has authorized only 18,000 electronic gambling devices in the 27 compacts it has negotiated with other tribes. Northern Quest has 1,200 machines.

But the compact is also unique to the state in other ways that concern Spokane County commissioners. Mielke raised three concerns on Tuesday regarding the specter of problem gambling on a scale never before seen in the state.

The compact would allow the tribe to offer unlimited wagering for pre-screened customers at a limited number of tables. The tribe would determine its own hours of operation and number of gaming tables. The tribe also could provide credit for pre-screened customers.

Mielke called this “a dangerous precedent.”

But Harris doubted whether the county could do anything to influence the compact at this stage, even if “a busload of Spokane people showed up” for the West Side hearings.

“At the very minimum, we need to prepare a detailed response,” Mielke said.