03/10/2006 12:00AM

McCain out to alter Indian gaming

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What's your first reaction when you read the business news and see "McCain" and "gaming" in the same sentence? Another organized attack on legalized sports betting in Nevada? Often true. Not this time.

The Nevada gaming industry is involved, but only as a very interested third party. In what could be one of many hot-button issues during the 2006 elections, the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is looking into changes to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is concerned that Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is out of date with an industry that has expanded from grossing $200 million a year a while back to more than $20 billion annually and growing now.

When the act first came into being, Indian gaming was basically bingo parlors. The act gave Indian tribes economic incentive that has grown faster and further than anyone could have imagined.

Sen. McCain's committee held five Indian gaming-related hearings in 2005. So, he bristles at the notion that he is only reacting in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. A McCain-sponsored bill, which would expand federal authority over Indian gaming, will be voted upon in committee on March 29.

There are competing factions that want to have influence on Capitol Hill.

The most extreme was the subject of testimony from Ron His Horse Is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He wrote, "Every provision of the McCain bill is punitive with respect to Indian tribes. There is not one provision in it that is for the benefit of tribes . . . "

On the other end is Congressman Christopher Shays (R-Connecticut), who testified, "The granting of federal recognition to state tribes is analogous to giving them a license to print money."

He also complained that "big money gaming interests have corrupted the federal recognition process."

Also at the core of new regulations is controlling Indian gaming expansion into off-reservation land. There are scores of tribes nationwide that want to build casinos on land they've acquired rather than on land from their ancestry. In 99 percent of the cases, the new property in a highly populated area is more advantageous for a casino.

The off-reservation clause of the act offers very narrow exceptions. As a result only 30 tribes in 18 years have succeeded in gaining federal approval. However, many tribes are aggressively pursuing this perceived loophole in the law.

The bottom line is Sen. McCain is concerned about the overall lack of federal regulation of Indian gaming. Since Indian tribes have sovereignty, they pay no federal taxes. However, the tribes do negotiate pacts with individual cities and states and are major contributors to the local economies.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of "Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies."