Washington (AP) – The House soundly defeated a plan Wednesday that would have advanced two proposed Indian casinos in Michigan, as gambling opponents and interests protecting Detroit’s casinos rallied to scuttle the bill.
The measure, rejected by a vote of 298-121, touched off a spirited debate over gambling and the rights of Indian tribes and pitted Michigan lawmakers against each other amid charges the tribes were engaging in „reservation shopping.“
„If you want to start a run on forum shopping for casinos, this is going to be the first bill that does it,“ said Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat.
Supporters said they were simply settling a century-old land claim from the tribes to make amends for the state’s failure to protect tribal land more than a century ago. In a state with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, the vote was a blow to Romulus and Port Huron, which stood to gain thousands of jobs in the deal.
„We will continue to fight to resolve this illegal land taking and bring thousands of much-needed jobs to our state,“ said Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Gambling opponents joined with Nevada gaming interests such as MGM Grand, which operates a Detroit casino, and some tribes to beat back the measure. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, which runs one of the nation’s largest tribal casinos in Mount Pleasant, was among the opponents, and some lawmakers noted that the tribe was once represented by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
„In a dark corner of a Maryland prison, Jack Abramoff is smiling right now,“ said Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, who supported the bill. „This was his battle and while he wasn’t around to finish it, a new batch of lobbyists relied on his tactics to squelch the voices of the people of Michigan.“
The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Bay Mills Indian Community reached agreements in 2002 with Michigan officials to take land in Romulus and Port Huron, respectively, and build off-reservation casinos.
Supporters noted that both former Gov. John Engler, R-Mich., and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm backed the deal and the two communities hoped to welcome the facilities.
The bill would provide land for the two new casinos in exchange for the settling of 110 acres of land claims around Charlotte Beach in the Upper Peninsula, which was allowed to be sold at a tax sale. Only Congress has the authority to settle land claims.
The Interior Department had registered its opposition because it did not follow the typical process for land to be taken into trust for a tribe, arguing that it appeared to circumvent the tribal-state compact approval process by bypassing the state Legislature.
Detroit lawmakers such as Conyers and Democratic Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick said the new casinos would have undercut three state-licensed casinos in the city and threatened attempts to revitalize the city. The three casinos employ nearly 8,000 and have generated more than USD 1 billion in revenue.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick called the vote a „major victory“ for the city. „Opening casinos in the proposed nearby cities would have severely harmed our ongoing transformation,“ he said.
Conyers and Kilpatrick noted that state voters approved a referendum in 1994 to allow the three private casinos and passed another ballot measure in 2004 to limit the expansion of private gambling.
Opponents seized on the issue, contending the tribes were simply trying to find choice land hundreds of miles away in southeast Michigan to build casinos in a heavily populated part of the state. Others noted that the two tribes already owned extensive gambling interests.
„This bill sends a signal that reservation shopping … is OK,“ said Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa. „It is about money, pure and simple.“
But supporters of the bill said Nevada gambling interests and other tribes simply feared additional competition that could undermine lucrative casinos already in place. Indian casinos took in about USD 26 billion in gambling revenue in 2007 while Nevada casinos hauled in USD 12.85 billion in gambling revenue last year.
„Their opposition is not based on ideology,“ said Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican from Macomb County’s Harrison Township.
Even if the bill had succeeded in the House, it would have faced an uncertain future in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had expressed opposition.
Dingell and Conyers, both committee chairmen, were on opposing sides in the debate that fractured Michigan’s delegation. Dingell was supported by Miller and Democrats Bart Stupak of Menominee, Dale Kildee of Flint, and Sander Levin of Royal Oak.
Conyers and Kilpatrick were joined by the remainder of the state’s Republican delegation except for Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Livonia, who was traveling with President Bush on a fundraising visit to Michigan and did not vote.
McCotter told The Associated Press Wednesday evening that he would have opposed the bill because it involves an issue that should be handled by the state.