WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After a long period of healthy growth that brought prosperity to many reservations. Indian tribal gaming revenues have leveled off in recent years and face an uncertain future, Congress was told on Wednesday.
Legalized gambling on Indian land grew dramatically after Congress enacted a law in 1988 that defined a relationship between states and tribes when it came to gaming and cleared a path for tribal-owned casinos that created thousands of jobs and plowed billions of dollars into tribal education, social programs and economic improvements.
However, Indian gaming revenues have plateaued at around $26 billion to $28 billion annually, Kevin Washburn, Interior Department assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, told a U.S. Senate panel.
“In fact, gaming revenues have been pretty flat since 2007,” Washburn said. “The days of tremendous growth are probably behind us for Indian gaming.” He said that means tribes “are going to have to learn to live with existing amounts of revenue” since they far outstrip the resources the government is able to offer them.
At the same time, Washburn said, “commercial gaming is now much larger than Indian gaming and the commercial gaming industry continue to grow. Put another way, Indian gaming’s overall share of the gaming market is decreasing.”
Revenues from commercial casinos in 2013 were $37.8 billion, according to the American Gaming Association. That’s a 23 percent increase since 2009.
“Commercial gaming goes to enrich shareholders,” Washburn said. “Indian gaming goes to help poor people, usually. I would much rather see Indian gaming existing than commercial gaming expanding.”
Washburn, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Tribe of Oklahoma and the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, gave his outlook to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs assessing the state of Indian gaming and what might lay ahead.
Washburn said the future of Indian gaming “is uncertain. Nothing last forever. No great economic resource lasts forever.”
While tribal casinos dominate in some regional markets, in others they face competition from commercial casinos, and from other tribes. Washburn said the BIA is put in an awkward position when a new casino is proposed as some tribes “are very happy not to have competition. We proceed with great caution and great care when someone asks us to take land into trust for a new gaming operation.”
As of 2013, 245 tribal governments operated 445 gaming ventures in 28 states in what Ernie Stevens, chairman of NIGA - National Indian Gaming Association, called “the most successful tool for economic development for many Indian tribes in over two centuries.” He said Indian gaming last year was responsible for more than 665,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Stevens told senators he was not certain he agreed with Washburn’s downbeat assessment of the future.
“But we have to be prepared for those kinds of challenges,” he said. “Welcome to our world. Indian country has always had to deal with those challenges.”
About half the tribes have gaming ventures. But not all have profited, said A.T. Stafne, chairman of the Assinibone and Sioux tribes that live on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in remote northeastern Montana,
“I will be blunt,” Stafne said. “We have seen little economic benefit from Indian gaming over the last 25 years.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a former state attorney general, suggested tribal gaming may be over-regulated.
Casinos in Las Vegas are regulated by the state, she said, while for Indian casinos, “we have tribal regulations, we have state regulations and we have federal regulations, all to respond to concerns that Indian gaming may be fraudulent in some places.
“I can tell you from my experience that has not been true,” Heitkamp said. “We need to rethink the regulatory structure. I think at some point we anticipated problem that haven’t shown up.”