Little River Withdraws Petition for Land into Trust, Will Likely Resubmit

From 6/25/10 MIRS (subscription only):

Feds Nix Indian Casino Expansion, For Now
At least for the time being, the U.S. Department of the Interior delayed a Michigan Native American tribe’s plan to move forward with a casino project near the site of the now-defunct Great Lakes Downs Racetrack near Muskegon.

The Little River Band of Chippewa Indians wants to open a casino on the Great Lakes Downs location. The tribe was one of the four tribes that compacted with the state in 1998 for the right to operate class III (Las Vegas style) casinos. It currently operates a casino in Manistee.

Because the location is not within current tribal boundaries, there are several hurdles the tribe would need to clear in order to operate a casino at the Muskegon site. One hurdle has already been cleared. On March 19, Gov. Jennifer GRANHOLM signed two amendments to the state’s compact with the Little River band that would let it build the new casino.

The Governor attached her signature after a deal was negotiated between her administration and the tribe.

“It would mean considerable revenues,” John WERNET, deputy legal counsel told MIRS today. “The good news would be that this would mean more dollars for the School Aid Fund (SAF). The bad news is that this would take years before it happened.”

The next step would be to have the Legislature approve one of the amendments. This is HCR 0054, sponsored by Rep. Doug BENNETT (D-Muskegon), which is currently before the House Regulatory Reform Committee.

Meanwhile, the other amendment to the compact was sent to the U.S. Department of Interior for approval. That’s where the project hit a roadblock.

In a letter to Rep. Bert JOHNSON (D-Highland Park), dated June 16, Paula [HART], Director of the Interior’s Department of Indian Gaming responded to questions Johnson had previously posed to her.

Citing Section 2701(d)(8)(A) of the Indian Gaming Compact Regulatory Act (IGRA), Hart wrote:

This section does not authorize the Secretary to approve a compact for the conduct of Class III gaming activities on lands that are not now, and may never be, Indian lands of such a tribe. Thus if the compact is site specific and identifies land that is not now or may never be Indian lands in accordance with IGRA and the tribe has not identified that is eligible for gaming in the compact the compact [for the new site] may be disapproved.

Johnson had asked other questions pertaining to the federal policies on IGRA, which Hart went on to answer in the letter.

One of these questions was if the department was considering new policies that might pertain to the Little River Band situation. In response, Hart wrote Johnson that the Department is still reviewing the policies that were in place under the George W. BUSH administration.

Hart could not be reached for comment this afternoon.

Those familiar with IRGA understand that the rules are subject to various interpretations. It’s like playing tennis with no net or out-of-bounce lines. Both sides in disputes in variably cite supposedly hard-and-fast rules that may or may not hold up over time.

Those opposing the Little River Muskegon casino claim the situation falls under the “Warm Springs” ruling, which came in regard to the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon in 2005. In that case the department didn’t allow the tribe to expand to another casino supposedly out of concerns that other tribes would start clamoring to be allowed to follow suit.

The organized effort against the Little River plan is headed by three tribes — the Gun Lake tribe, Nottaweseppi Huron band and the Saginaw Chippewa band.

The statement, dated May 26,from the leaders of these three tribes included:

It is unfortunate that Governor Granholm, in the waning days of her Administration, would sign a document that would seriously weaken the significant public support for Indian gaming and undermine the promise we all made to our communities that we would conduct gaming on our lands. Her unwarranted actions also violate the agreement the State signed with all the tribes to prevent this type of activity. Indian people should not have to put up with more broken promises.

Wernet told MIRS the Granholm administration does not consider the situation to be one where the feds have said “no” to the Muskegon casino.

“(The Department of Interior) can’t make the decision in the 45 days required,” Wernet said. “So the tribe has withdrawn its request. It will be resubmitted and we’ll start over.”

MIRS asked if allowing tribes to put in casinos outside of their lands was now the policy of the Granholm administration.

“This is a specific situation,” Wernet said. “The location is one that was within the area that was originally ceded to the Little River band by the 1837 treaty. The tribe has fishing rights in the area and made members who live there. This is not that far from the other casino. I think the concern has been about tribes locating casinos far away from their lands and this situation is not like that.

“I do not believe this will open the floodgates for other tribes to try to do the same thing,” Wernet said. “It’s not that easy and it is costly. This would still have a long way to go before the casino would open.”