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Archive for Thursday, April 4, 2002

Hedging bets

April 4, 2002

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It would be wonderful to see American Indian tribes use their gambling revenue to build a firm economic base for their members.

American Indian tribes should hedge their bets when it comes to casino gambling, according to a federal official who oversees Indian gaming.

Montie Deer, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, was in Lawrence on Tuesday to speak to an audience of about 50 tribal leaders and Haskell Indian Nations University officials who had gathered to discuss the future of Indian gaming. Deer's advice may not have been what they wanted to hear.

Faced with tight budgets, he said, many states are likely to consider legalizing expanded gambling opportunities. In many states, including Kansas, Indian tribes have the right to operate gambling venues on reservation land, even if state laws don't allow such gambling elsewhere. That has given the tribes pretty much a corner on the gambling market in many parts of the country.

But even as Deer was speaking on Tuesday, Kansas legislators who support expanded gambling in the state were counting their votes in favor of such a measure. Kansas is one of those states that, in Deer's words, is "desperate for revenue." And, as he also said, increased gambling is starting to look more attractive, or at least more acceptable, to many state legislators.

The leading proposal in the Kansas Legislature is one that would allow electronic gambling machines at five pari-mutuel racetracks and one additional site. Whether that or other gambling expansion is approved in Kansas or elsewhere across the country, the advice of the Indian gambling official seems timely and wise.

Many Americans of varied racial backgrounds visit and enjoy Indian casinos. Given the many transgressions of white settlers against American Indians, most people don't begrudge the tribes whatever economic benefit they might reap from casino operations. And yet, many people would like to see American Indian tribes do as Deer advised and diversify their business ventures and get into areas that are more financially solid than gambling.

Deer urged tribes to commit part of their gambling revenue to state-of-the-art schools and college scholarships. "We need to make sure this prosperity lasts," he said.

He said that 309 tribal gambling facilities generated $10.6 billion last year. That's money that could bring a lot of long-term financial security to American Indians if it is managed wisely. Haskell is considering creating a new curriculum to train students for management positions in the gaming industry. Perhaps some tribal gambling money could be used to support such a program, but there are many other worthwhile programs at Haskell that also could benefit from additional financial support.

It would be great if federal funding for Haskell was sufficient to support all important programs, but, like state-assisted universities, Haskell may have to depend on more private sources to fund its operation. Gambling profits that are invested in educational efforts like Haskell and other ventures to provide jobs, training and economic opportunities to American Indians could go a long way toward diversifying tribal investments and promoting the long-term security of tribal members.

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