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Gaming procedures stalled

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Montana tribal leaders hope to resurrect a bill dealing with reservation gaming that was abruptly killed in the House Judiciary Committee last week.

Anti-gambling and religious groups, saying they know what’s best for tribes, attacked House Bill 132 on the premise that it would expand gambling and wreak social havoc across the state.

“This bill would be like shooting our Native American friends,” said Dallas Erickson, head of the Stevensville-based Montana Citizens for Decency Through Law.

HB 132, sponsored by Rep. Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer, puts into law procedures for the governor and Legislature to follow when the executive branch negotiates compacts under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Without such compacts, neither Indians nor non-Indians can operate some types of gambling on reservations.

The federal law requires states to negotiate in good faith if tribes want to pursue Class III gaming, which in Montana includes the state lottery, electronic keno and poker machines, pari-mutuel betting and various other activities involving wagers and chance. If states don’t, sanctions can be imposed.

Contrary to the claims of opponents, state/tribal gambling agreements are nothing new. They’ve already been negotiated for the Flathead, Rocky Boy’s, Fort Belknap, Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. HB 132 merely spells out a “clear and legally defensible process” for continued talks, Bixby told the panel at a Jan. 27 hearing.

Nonetheless, the outcry from opponents, Republican misgivings about giving previously unstated powers to a Democratic governor, and a lack of understanding about tribal gaming in general apparently merged when the committee voted 11–7 to keep the bill off the House floor.

In response, tribal leaders met last week in Great Falls to discuss strategies for getting it pried loose.

Bixby says potential amendments are being drafted, as well as educational materials to help lawmakers better understand the issues.

“There’s confusion over what the legislation allows,” says Rep. Gail Gutsche, a Missoula Democrat who sits on the committee. “My guess is that we’ll be looking at it again.”

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