As Congress debates whether to legalize Internet gaming, it’s important to guarantee that Native American tribes are dealt a fair and honest hand. They deserve nothing less.
Not inviting majority stakeholders to weigh in when drafting game changing legislation is as shortsighted as doubling down at a poker table before you see your cards.
Yet that’s exactly what some lawmakers are doing when they draft Internet gaming legislation and deny tribal leaders and tribal gaming regulators a seat at the policy table. We believe that’s wrong, and we’re determined to make certain the voices of Native Americans are heard. Today, there are 565 federally recognized tribes and nearly 3 million Native Americans spread across the United States. They have a huge stake in this outcome, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the legislation which has been introduced so far.
Clearly, the discussions surrounding potential Internet gaming legislation have intensified as Congress looks to find new revenue sources, create new jobs and expand economic development opportunities across the United States. While these are all important goals, many legislators are failing to fully consider the impact this could have on the brick and mortar casinos that already exist.
As the respective chairmen of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, we have held numerous hearings on Internet gaming and one thing is very clear: Although collaboration has occurred between lawmakers and large-chain casinos, similar conversations must also take place between these same legislators and leading tribal gaming enterprises.
Indian gaming is a $26 billion dollar industry, making up approximately 43 percent of the entire commercial gaming industry in the United States. Today, nearly half of the federally recognized tribes across the U.S. operate casinos, which provide a critically important source of funding for tribal operations and governance. In rural communities, tribal casinos are often the largest employers in the area and many tribes actually employ more non-Natives than Natives.
California’s 45th Congressional District, including Palm Springs and Temecula, provides a good example of the economic importance of tribal gaming. Seven casinos support thousands of jobs, which is especially important during these difficult economic times. The tribes have been great neighbors and contribute regularly to charities and civic events. Also, tribal gaming revenue provides for the education, housing, infrastructure and health needs of tribal members. So as this debate continues to unfold, it’s very important to remember how tribal gaming has improved the lives of millions, and we want to make certain that they are not adversely impacted by online gaming—legal or otherwise.
Complicating matters is a recent, surprise opinion by the Department of Justice that the 1961 Wire Act applies only to sports betting. As a result, there are legitimate concerns the DOJ opinion could open the back door to Internet gaming, prompting us to examine this issue even more thoroughly as we move forward.
We are not advocating that Internet gaming is a bad or impractical idea; we understand why our colleagues are eager to look at opportunities that would generate millions of dollars in tax revenues at a time when money is tight. But, out of fundamental fairness, we must make sure that the unique circumstances surrounding tribal gaming and tribal sovereignty are ultimately respected in any future legislation. It’s not our job to pick winners and losers; it’s our job to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. And right now, we believe Native Americans are facing a stacked deck.
This is a critically important issue, which we will continue to follow very closely in hopes of making certain that everyone is treated fairly. It’s imperative that we be deliberate and thoughtful in our process and work together in a bipartisan and bicameral fashion, as we consider the future of Internet gaming. Too much is at stake to get it wrong.
This column originally appeared on TheHill.org.
Rep. Bono Mack is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade. Sen. Akaka (D-Hawaii) is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.