In approving the Spokane Tribe casino at an off-reservation site, Gov. Jay Inslee said gambling growth should be “slow and limited.” But the precedent he set could have the opposite effect.

Share story

GOV. Jay Inslee says he wants the growth of gambling in the state to be “slow and limited.” But by approving a Spokane Tribe casino in Airway Heights, he might have made it easier for the opposite to happen.

The addition of one more Native American gambling operation to the 29 already here is not the issue. What’s more dangerous is the precedent Inslee’s approval may set for other tribes to expand their operations off reservations.

Inslee says that is not going to happen, that the circumstances in the Spokane approval are unlikely to arise again.

The tribe already operates two casinos, one at the confluence of the Columbia and Spokane rivers and the other in Chewelah — neither within 40 miles of Spokane. The tribe reports the support it gets from these operations dropped from $7 million in some years to less than $20,000 in 2009.

Part of the blame for that, according to the Spokane Tribe, is the Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest casino, which was approved in 1998 by then-Gov. Gary Locke. The Kalispel Tribe argued that its reservation in the flood plain of the Pend Oreille River made it impossible to build there.

So it was built in Airway Heights, “the aboriginal area of the Spokane Tribe,” according to the U.S. Department of Interior, which also signed off on both casinos.

The department wrote that “it would be deeply ironic to allow the Kalispel Tribe to develop a casino” there and then deny the Spokane Tribe “the opportunity to use its own aboriginal lands for the same purpose.”

The Spokane Tribe won approval, in part, based on the argument that it needs the market to sustain what Inslee called its “sovereign economic interests.”

Getting off-reservation approval for a casino requires a tribe to have a “federally recognized and established primary connection to a territory.”

Inslee sees that as a showstopper.

Others do not.

Al French, a Spokane County commissioner, says all a tribe has to do is buy land in their traditional area, as the Spokane Tribe did in 1998, have the Bureau of Indian Affairs put it in trust, as it did for the Spokane Tribe in 2003, and “you’re off to the races.”

Inslee should live by his words that “every new facility should be carefully scrutinized.”

And while he notes that there’s nothing binding on future governors, it would be in the best interest of the state if they do as Inslee says and not as he did.