By Ernie Stevens Jr.
On Jan. 3rd, the United States Congress swore in seven new members of the Senate and 55 new Members of the House of Representatives. On Jan. 20th, our Nation witnessed the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. President Donald Trump has nominated, and Congress is working to approve 15 new cabinet officials, and literally thousands of political appointees throughout the executive branch. >
New policy proposals related to Indian affairs generally and Indian gaming specifically are expected to come with these changes, and we anticipate an active year ahead.
Internet gaming has been part of the federal policy debate for more than 15 years, and we fully expect it to return in the 115th Congress.
The issue was raised during the nomination hearings for President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions. The 2011 Department of Justice (DOJ) opinion reversing its stance on the Wire Act, reshaped the Internet gaming debate—and frankly many of NIGA’s member tribes were concerned with the new position. The new attorney general has stated that he opposed the DOJ opinion when it was released, and he promised to revisit the position.
Regardless of what happens at DOJ, we also fully expect Congress to continue the debate on Internet gaming. With the last Congress, we saw conflicting efforts. One bill sought to federally authorize Internet poker, while others sought to expand the Federal Wire Act’s prohibitions.
Through the work of our member tribes, Indian Country has a sound seat at the decision-making table. We continue to stand behind our principles, which require federal Internet proposals to respect Indian tribes as governments with equal access to customers wherever Internet gaming is legal, and which protects existing tribal governments in exercising their rights in gaming under IGRA and tribal-state gaming compacts.
With regard to Indian gaming, we expect some changes at the administrative level. However, I am confident that the incoming secretary of the interior will continue to work with and on the behalf of Indian Country to uphold the intent of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to ensure that Indian gaming continues to benefit tribal governments and Native communities.
As of the writing of this column, the Senate had not yet held the nomination hearing for Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke to become the new interior secretary. The statement that he made upon learning of his nomination showed all of Indian Country that the man understands tribal sovereignty and the solemn duties and obligations that he is about to incur. The tribes in Montana have supported his nomination and all Indian Country looks forward to getting to know him and to working with the new secretary.
Finally, there is change coming in Congress. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has primary jurisdiction over most Indian affairs related issues and legislation. NIGA and our member tribes were encouraged to learn that North Dakota Senator John Hoeven will take the gavel as chairman of the committee and New Mexico Senator Tom Udall will serve as the top Democrat on the committee. Both men are experienced in working with tribal governments at the state level as governor and state attorney general, respectively. And both have strong track records of understanding tribal sovereignty and the well-established benefits of Indian gaming.
To ensure that any proposed changes benefit our communities, NIGA and our member Tribes will continue to tell our story and spread the truth about Indian gaming. NIGA has scheduled its 16th Winter Legislative Summit for March. We plan to remind the new members of Congress that the Constitution that they recently swore to uphold acknowledges that Indian tribes are separate sovereign governments, and that treaties are the supreme law of this land. We will also remind them of the solemn promises that the United States made in those treaties.
We hope that the readers and executives at the Tribal Business Journal will also work to share the facts about Indian gaming, including the fact that our industry creates more than 600,000 direct and indirect American jobs annually, generating tribal governmental revenue to improve the education, health, and safety of our communities.
Indian gaming operations serve as “anchors” for tribal communities’ Indian Country-wide, acting as economic catalysts, purchasing local goods and services, making vital contributions to our neighbors, and stimulating diversification to non-gaming businesses.
While our largest Indian gaming operations are located near urban centers, the hundreds of rural Indian gaming operations are vital to the communities that they serve. In some cases, these remote operations are the major employer in the region.
Change is coming, and we are prepared. We stand ready to fight back against any potential challenges and to make the most of prospective opportunities that surface.
The success that Indian gaming has enjoyed over the past 40 years did not come from complacency. It was achieved through constant education, vigilance, and standing united with one voice to protect and strengthen tribal sovereignty. Our industry is battle-tested, and I am confident that we will thrive in the face of change that will certainly come our way. ♦