The Festering Problem of Indian "Sovereignty": The Supreme Court Ducks. Congress Sleeps. Indians Rule

Article excerpt

Foxwoods, the King Kong of casinos, was brought to Connecticut with dreams of untold riches. Now, locals are trying to kill the beast. Foxwoods and its sister institution, Mohegan Sun, (the world's two most profitable casinos), pay host state Connecticut a hefty $400 million a year--one fourth of the take. Yet in 2003, Connecticut became the first state in the country to pass legislation designed to halt any future casino development. The measure passed unanimously, not exactly a ringing endorsement for Indian gambling institutions. "Another gambling palace anywhere in the state would be disastrous," the Hartford Courant warned in an editorial. "The state must stop this slot-machine tsunami."

Jeff Benedict is president of the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion, and the author of Without Reservation, a book about the Mashantucket Pequot Indians and their Foxwoods casino. "Casino money costs us a lot more than it's worth," Benedict argues. He recites a litany of woes: Casinos have a negative impact on roads, water and land consumption, fire, police, ambulance service, air pollution, and traffic. Local school systems are flooded with the children of low-income casino workers, who also create a shortage of affordable housing. And there are social costs--increased bankruptcies, foreclosures, divorces, child abuse, and crime. "The closer a community gets to a casino, the higher those numbers are,' says Benedict. "Who pays for that? The local and state governments." Casinos cause property devaluation and lost taxes when businesses and lands are taken over by tax-exempt tribes. While casino owners argue that they create jobs and help neighboring businesses, the casinos (which, as Indian enterprises, do not have to pay the same taxes or abide by the same laws as other establishments) actually damage competing businesses nearby--restaurants, bars, hotels, retail outlets. "When the Indian casino comes to town, nobody else does well," says Benedict.

Except for the lawyers. The Pequots have subjected their host state and local governments to a decade of legal battles over tribal land annexation, environmental and land-use regulations, and sovereign immunity from lawsuits and police jurisdiction. Local communities have spent millions litigating against further casino expansion. Twelve more would-be "tribes" are petitioning the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal tribal status, and new land claims threaten over one third of Connecticut's real estate.

Another book on Foxwoods, Hitting the Jackpot, by Wall Street reporter Brett Fromson, explains how a "tribe" that disappeared 300 years ago resurrected itself and won a gambling monopoly now worth $1.2 billion a year. Like Benedict, Fromson concludes that the re-created Pequot tribe is illegitimate, a political contrivance based on sympathy and political correctness, not reality or common sense--"the greatest legal scam."

Next door in New York, the situation is even worse. The Empire State approved the Oneida Nation's Turning Stone Casino near Oneida ten years ago, without first obtaining any agreement for the Nation to share its revenues ($232 million in 2001) with the state, or any agreement to settle the tribe's claim to 250,000 acres of central00 New York land. Subsequent casino compacts with other tribes have been haphazard and subject to ongoing renegotiation, with New York collecting money from some, not from others.

The Oneidas have used their casino cash machine to buy 16,000 acres of land and businesses, including nearly all of the area's gasoline and convenience stores. Once they are Indian-owned, the land and businesses go off the tax rolls. The business impact and loss of property and sales taxes has some local communities teetering on bankruptcy. "The tribes hurt us in a number of ways," explains Scott Peterman, president of Upstate Citizens for Equality. "They buy a property and refuse to pay property tax because they say they are re-acquiring their ancient reservation. …