National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) Chairwoman Tracie Stevens proudly reported at the 2011 Global Gaming Expo (G2E) that the commission was “new and improved.” This claim came just a year after she and her colleagues—Vice Chairwoman Steffani Cochran and Associate Commissioner Dan Little—had taken over at NIGC. Indian Country Today Media Network recently got a preview of the update Stevens will present at G2E this year.
When you were appointed in June 2010, you took over an agency that had inflamed the tribal gaming community with proposals that would have virtually eliminated Class II gaming. A year later tribal leaders and gaming experts at the G2E gave you a rousing hand of applause—twice! How did that make you feel?
The commission is honored to receive such positive responses from tribal leaders. We interpret it as an indicator that our ongoing efforts to respect the government-to-government relationship with tribes have been effective.
When we came into office…we knew that [improving] relations between tribes and the NIGC had to be the first priority. Collaboration and coordination between tribal, federal and state agencies is essential in order to protect the industry. We do not and cannot operate in a vacuum. The positive responses that we receive confirm that our collaborative efforts are working.
All three [of us] came into our positions with the philosophy that each of us was taught growing up, which was reinforced while working for tribes: We should always strive to leave something better than the way we found it.
When you were appointed you stated that you had four goals: to review and improve consultation and relationship building; training and technical assistance; regulations; and agency operations. How far along are you in accomplishing each of those goals?
When we first outlined our priorities in 2010, we received some interesting reactions. Some thought we were naïve, overly ambitious and out of our minds. How could we possibly hope to achieve all of these objectives during our term! Well, we rolled up our sleeves, set tangible goals and deadlines and shared the workload—not just within the agency but with Indian country as well.
We have made considerable progress. We changed our consultation process so that tribes and the public have ample opportunity to weigh in before NIGC implements change or initiates the rule-making process. This allows the commission to make well-informed, thoroughly considered decisions from beginning to end.
With the input of tribes, we revamped our training catalogue to more closely align our course offerings to meet the needs of industry. Requests for training have increased, as have individual and tribal attendance. In terms of technical assistance, communication between our regional staff and the tribal gaming operations and regulatory bodies improved, allowing more effective site visits and audits, so tribes are better equipped to maintain compliance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act [IGRA] and NIGC regulations.
The regulatory review has been an incredible success. Our whole objective in reviewing the regulations was to make the regulations tribes rely on relevant to today’s industry and bring certainty to tribal regulators and operators on outstanding regulations. We reviewed more than 20 regulations or potential regulations, utilizing an informal pre-rulemaking process. With tribal input from the beginning, our revised regulations are more robust and practical.
Lastly, agency operations review is an effort that is ongoing yet somewhat unseen compared to our other initiatives. Like tribes, we, too, are duty-bound to run the most efficient and effective organization we can. We have created better communication systems, developed practices and policies that allow employees to better perform their duties, created for the first time a line-item-specific budget that allows us to be more fiscally responsible and many other projects that improve agency efficiency. How we operate internally is inextricably linked to how the agency performs our duties under IGRA.
How do you see the future of Indian gaming?
It has been 24 years since IGRA was enacted. Over that time, tribes have experienced success not just in terms of gross gaming revenue [GGR] but in establishing a professional, mature industry. In July, we announced the 2011 Indian GGR of $27.2 billion, representing 237 tribes with 421 operations. This is a three percent increase from $26.5 billion in 2010, with 65 percent of all operations seeing an increase and the Oklahoma regions experiencing the largest increase. The majority of operations, 56 percent, are small to moderate operations under $25 million GGR, which illustrates that success is relative. For some tribes, GGR is a monetary indicator of success while for others, maintaining a source of employment for their community is yet another.… [This] is the first overall industry increase since 2008 which, in itself, may answer the question about the future of Indian gaming. The industry has matured and tribes continue to operate and regulate their facilities successfully. The goals of IGRA continue to be realized: to promote tribal economic development, self-sufficiency and strong tribal governments, maintain the integrity of the Indian gaming industry and ensure that tribes are the primary beneficiaries of their gaming activities.
You’ve avoided being pinned down about whether NIGC could or should regulate online gaming if or when it becomes legal, but at a hearing in July you gave every impression that it could. Do you support the position of a huge number of tribal leaders who support having the NIGC regulate online gaming?
Tribes certainly should make their position clear and as stakeholders in the industry, tribes are the most appropriate and suitable entities to express their concerns to Congress regarding legislation that affects them.
It is a complex issue with multiple interests at play. Ultimately, the commission will execute and administer the law in whatever role Congress establishes for it. As the only established federal agency solely dedicated to the regulation and oversight of Indian gaming, additional regulatory responsibilities would be well within our area of expertise.
Your three-year term is up in the middle of 2013. Would you accept a reappointment?
I am pleased with our accomplishments so far, but there is more to be done. For the time being, I’m intensely focused on the tasks at hand: ensuring that the integrity of the industry is maintained, managing the agency and achieving the priority objectives that the commission set forth in 2010. There is definitely enough work that could carry over into the next administration.