THE Spokane Tribe’s proposal to build its third casino at an off-reservation site a few miles outside of Washington’s second-largest city has generated a lot of attention across the state recently, and for good reason. The precedent that will be established by the decision on this proposal holds tremendous importance for Washington state and will reverberate nationally.
While all of the potential consequences of this situation aren’t clear, we don’t think the expansion is good — for tribes, for our communities or for our state.
As longtime advocates for tribal sovereignty, self-determination and economic development, we know it’s vital for tribes to continue their momentum and progress in these areas, but not at any price. This off-reservation casino proposal concerns us because of the implications it holds for the expansion of gambling in Washington.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act generally prohibits tribal gaming on lands acquired after 1988. It places tough prohibitions against off-reservation casinos, and requires that tribes that seek exceptions to this law meet strict tests before they can be approved.
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The rare exception the Spokane Tribe is seeking has allowed only a handful of tribes nationally to build off-reservation casinos over the course of the past 24 years. In each of these prior approved cases, the applicant tribe sought a meaningful way to pursue its rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that would otherwise be denied.
These few exceptions have established a clear philosophy and policy of merit over market — of needs over wants — when allowing off-reservation projects to proceed.
The Spokane Tribe’s proposal to build its third casino is different. First, when the tribe acquired the land in Airway Heights it stated publicly that it had no intention of engaging in gambling on the site. And with two existing casinos, the tribe is already able to exercise its rights under the law.
Additionally, it could at any time develop another casino on its reservation without needing any approvals. However, the tribe has chosen to seek this narrowly given exception so it can build a casino closer to more people, in a market it perceives as more lucrative.
If the Spokane Tribe is allowed to develop its proposed casino in Airway Heights, it will be doing so outside the spirit of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and prior balanced wisdom, and worse, it will expose every community in the state to a wave of purely market-focused gaming expansion.
The state of Washington has agreements with federally recognized tribes in our state affording each tribe the same opportunity provided to others. There are tribes today that hold property in the heart of some of Washington’s largest cities. We must avoid setting a precedent that could allow large-scale gambling to move into the middle of any community.
If the Spokane Tribe is allowed to build its third casino off-reservation, it threatens to upset the important balance between the needs of tribes and of local communities. Tribes will be incentivized to rapidly develop properties in markets now closed to Indian gaming, pitting tribes against each other in a mad rush to locate casinos as close to the downtown core of every major city as possible.
Once this new expansion genie is out of the bottle, we won’t be able to put it back in. Perhaps most worrisome is that the goodwill we share with our tribal neighbors will be tested and weakened — and that is an unacceptable outcome.
We want all tribes to succeed, including the Spokane Tribe, but any proposal that seeks an exception for purely market-driven reasons must be measured against the consequences and harm that stands to follow.
By this yardstick, the Spokane Tribe’s proposal falls short.
Mike Lowry, left, is former governor of Washington state. Ralph Munro is former secretary of state for Washington state.