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Casino bill worries local officials

Draft legislation would restrict off-reservation tribal gambling casinos

November 23, 2005

Hood River County officials are worried that federal officials might soon move to stop tribes from building off-reservation casinos.

The County Commission believes that U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo’s draft legislation could bring a casino fight back to Hood River.

Local government leaders have given unanimous support for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs plan to site a gaming facility in Cascade Locks. These same officials have registered strong objections to having the casino built on 40 acres of trust land just east of Hood River.

Not only does Cascade Locks want the casino built in its industrial park, said County Commission Chair Rodger Schock, but placing it there would protect more than 200 acres in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

The Warm Springs have agreed to turn 175 acres of their property near Hood River over to the state. In addition, the tribe has also offered to grant the state a conservation easement on its trust parcel adjacent to that acreage.

“We’ve spent seven years working under the existing rules to find a plan that everyone can live with,” said Schock. “It’s been very expensive and very time consuming to find a proposal that was agreeable to all of us. And we would hate to see all that work going to waste because the rules changed.”

He recently signed off on a four-party letter asking that the compact signed in April by Gov. Ted Kulongoski be “grandfathered” to exempt it from any new rules. The county contends the review process underway on the Warm Springs’ plan is valid under existing regulations – and that should be honored.

Kulongoksi exercised an option under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) that allowed him to approve the off-reservation site. He believed that extenuating circumstances warranted the exception to the standard rule that casinos be built on reservation land. County and city officials from both Hood River and Cascade Locks were in agreement with that decision.

It was also supported by both state and federal officials who represent the county. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., Oregon Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, and Oregon Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, are all advocating for the alternate site.

“We have carefully followed and relied upon existing law and process and have negotiated complicated and detailed agreements for our mutual benefit based on those laws.

“We ask that any legislation to amend IGRA not deprive us of an opportunity to complete our efforts under the laws that were in place when we began this process,” wrote Schock, Kulongoski, Tribal Chair Ron Suppah and Cascade Locks Mayor Ralph Hesgard in the late October letter.

Walden also believes it would be “pulling the rug out from under folks who have followed the rules” to not exempt the Warm Springs request.

He sits on the House Committee on Resources which will consider the Pombo draft legislation. The California Republican wants to amend IGRA to restrict off-reservation gaming.

However, there has been no movement in recent weeks to move that legislation forward, according to Walden’s office.

District 1 County Commissioner Carol York has also submitted testimony to the resources committee.

She has asked Pombo and other elected officials to include a grandfather clause in any new legislation.

She contends that provision should be based on the following five criteria:

* The site being considered for off-reservation be located within the ceded territory of the tribe.

* The governor of each state must sign off in approval of the proposal.

* Local government leaders must publicly support the project.

* If the land lies within a city boundary, that community must also have stated its support.

* The federal scoping process of potential impacts must have already been completed.

And an analysis of environmental issues underway.

York outlined that the Warm Springs proposal has already passed these benchmarks, and therefore, has earned the right to be considered under the existing rules.

“We submit that our experiences to date should be viewed as a ‘model’ for how the process is supposed to work when conducting a thorough investigation and vigorous community debate about off-reservation gaming,” stated York in the Nov. 9 document.

She concluded by saying, “Changing the rules of the game now without including a true grandfather clause or a special exception for a model project such as ours will likely prevent the siting of a casino on ceded land in Cascade Locks and force the tribe back to their trust property in Hood River.

“That would be a tragedy for all parties.”

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