Just as the shine has come off Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, known as the BIA, has a new plan that could push more Indian casinos on Connecticut.
Last month, Kevin Washburn, an Interior Department assistant secretary over Indian affairs, proposed new guidelines to streamline the process for groups petitioning to become federally recognized tribes. Federal recognition is essentially a gaming license in states that permit casinos.
This sounds like too little too late, at least as far as Connecticut is concerned. The game of parlaying tribal status into gambling riches ended here 10 years ago. First, the state legislature outlawed additional casinos by repealing the Las Vegas Nights statute in 2003. Then in 2005, the BIA soundly rejected the last in a handful of groups that had applied for tribal status in Connecticut. The Stonington-based Eastern Pequots and the Kent-based Schaghticokes, both of whom were backed by casino moguls, failed to satisfy two mandatory requirements — proof of a fully functioning residential community and proof of a governing structure on their state reservations. The courts have upheld those decisions.
But Washburn's proposal negates the BIA's rulings by allowing previously denied groups to petition again. Only this time, the rules will be much less stringent. A press release from Washburn's office claimed that the new procedures are part of President Barack Obama's initiative to strengthen nation-to-nation relationships with American Indians by making the tribal recognition process "fair, efficient and transparent."
Not so fast. The true aim of Washburn's proposal is to relax the criterion for recognition that has been in place for 30 years. At the same time, interested parties such as states, towns and landowners will be further limited from participating in the process. Most egregious, previously denied groups can try again under a special provision that appears targeted at Connecticut. Those applicants will be fast-tracked to federal recognition as long as they meet bare minimum requirements and have had a state reservation since 1934.
The state reservation bit is the devil in the details. Conveniently, both the Eastern Pequots and the Schaghticokes have had state reservations since 1934. Never mind that the Indian Board of Appeals, a tribunal established to review legal conflicts involving federal tribal law, has ruled that state Indian reservations have no bearing on federal tribal status. For good measure, Washburn also proposes abolishing the role of the appeals board.
Even the Golden Hill Paugussetts and the Nipmuc, whose petitions were woefully lacking, will be back in the hunt under the new proposal. The BIA under Washburn looks suspiciously like the old one under former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, who, in the late 1990s, pursued an aggressive pro-recognition agenda in Connecticut and elsewhere.
Still, Connecticut law prohibits additional casinos beyond the two already in operation. The ban on future casinos is on sound legal footing, as there is no constitutionally protected right to gamble. But the law will become politically vulnerable the minute more tribal group are recognized. The first thing they will do is file land claims.
Once a title cloud appears over residential property and commercial real estate, all bets are off in terms of what politicians might do to resolve the mess. There will be calls to settle land claims by designating space for a casino or two.
There's an even more fundamental problem here. Even if new tribes don't pursue casinos in Connecticut, they will still be afforded sovereign status that exempts them from state taxation and regulation. It's an unfair economic advantage that Connecticut can't afford.
The bottom line is that one political appointee in the federal government shouldn't be able to undermine state sovereignty, disregard the courts and ignore the rule of law to satisfy his agenda. The time to avoid this train wreck is now. The deadline for submitting public comments to the BIA's proposed changes is Aug. 16. Meanwhile, the BIA is holding tribal consultation meetings around the country to seek input. Naturally, the BIA has no plans to visit Connecticut.
Regardless, the best way for Connecticut residents to have their voices heard is for the state's congressional delegation — led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal — to go directly to the officials responsible for the BIA and agency rules. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state legislature must remain united in a bipartisan effort to oppose tribal recognition and any overtures from groups promising to help the state's fiscal problems through additional gambling enterprises. That's a losing bet.
Jeff Benedict is the author of "Without Reservation" and the former president of the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion. His website is http://www.jeffbenedict.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun