NIGA Keeps Firm Focus on the Road Ahead

Summertime is almost over, and with Congress in recess, now is a good time to take stock of the work we have done and focus on the work ahead of us. NIGA has been working hard since the beginning of the year with tribal leaders across Indian country and in Washington. With the effects of sequestration just beginning to be felt and a divided Congress working hard to make compromises, it is more important than ever that Indian country speak with a unified voice on the issues that are most important to us.

Since January, tribal leaders have been coming together to discuss the tough issues facing Indian country. Last month, NIGA held the annual Summer Legislative Summit in Washington. Tribal leaders came together July 23 and 24 to engage with members of Congress on Indian country’s federal priorities.

One issue that continues to be discussed is Internet gaming. It is only natural, considering the tremendous amount of change that Indian tribes have seen as a result of Indian gaming, that they are concerned when Congress considers changing the playing field. No other form of economic development in Indian country has been as successful as gaming. Indian gaming provides the revenue many tribal governments depend on to provide the most basic programs and services to their communities, and it has helped rebuild tribal infrastructure. Indian gaming operations provide jobs to our communities and to our neighboring communities as well. In fact, tribal gaming contributed approximately 650,000 jobs to the United States economy last year. Internet gaming has the potential to completely change the gaming industry in America.

For more than 15 years, Congress has considered various Internet gaming bills. Early on, Congress focused on prohibition, which resulted in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). In recent years, the debate has turned from prohibition to the legalization of Internet gaming. However, none of the bills put forth in recent years has provided adequate protection for tribal sovereignty and economic development. Our first priority must be the protection of tribal sovereignty and existing tribal government rights under Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and tribal-state compacts. Any Internet legislation must meet the principles that NIGA member tribes have adopted. These principles express the requirement that any Internet gaming legislation must ensure the fair treatment of tribal governments as both operators and regulators of the new industry. Because tribes are governments and 100 percent of their revenues are used to improve tribal communities, tribal Internet revenues cannot be subject to any form of outside government taxation. The legislation must not open up IGRA for amendments, and federal legalization of Internet gaming must provide positive economic benefits for Indian country. These principles were unanimously adopted through resolution by our executive board and our national membership. We also have a companion resolution with the National Congress of American Indians. While these are both standing resolutions with the full support of our leadership, it must be emphasized that each tribal government represents an independent and sovereign Indian nation. Each tribe will decide for itself what form of economic development is right for its community to pursue. However, Indian country stands united in defense of tribal sovereignty.

Another key issue for tribal leaders, and one of the most pressing, is the IRS’ practice of ongoing audits of Indian tribes. Tribal governments have been the recipient of unfair and discriminatory audits by the IRS for years, but the issue has not received attention from the media that other IRS practices have.These challenges come as tribal governments work to rebuild their traditional homelands and provide the services that the federal government promised through treaty and agreement but never fulfilled. Simply put, the IRS is misguided. As the federal government implements sequestration, further cutting essential services to Indian communities, many tribal governments are stepping up to fill the void by providing these same programs and services to their communities. Instead of fostering these acts of Indian self-determination, the IRS—through its discriminatory audits—is penalizing tribes. These intrusive actions violate the U.S. Constitution and directly conflict with the federal Indian affairs policy supporting self-determination. As a result, I guarantee this will remain a hot topic throughout the summer and was a highlight at our summit.

NIGA has worked hard to keep our membership informed and build momentum for our summer legislative work, which is critical. We came together three times in the month of May, first on the Kalispel Reservation for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ Midyear Conference. Following that, we joined together with the United Southern and Eastern Tribes in Niagara Falls, N.Y., for their semi-annual meeting hosted by the Seneca Nation. Finally, we met at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community for the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association’s Annual Conference. These are important meetings for our tribal leaders.

In June, NIGA hosted a very successful Tribal Tax Reform Summit in Washington. Tribal leaders from across Indian country gathered to discuss priorities for tax reform and develop strategies for achieving our goals. We followed up on the tax summit with a full day of tribal leader discussion of the issue at the National Congress of American Indians’ Midyear Conference in Reno, Nev., June 24 in preparation for the taxation sub-committee meeting. Tribal leaders are fully engaged and working hard to advance the needs of Indian country as Congress looks to reform the tax code for the first time since 1986. Before that, Congress had not undertaken major reforms to the tax code since 1954. So, it is critical that tribal leaders come to a consensus on these important issues!

This month we have the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Conference Aug. 13 to 15. NIGA will be represented at the conference, and we are looking forward to meeting with the Oklahoma tribes to hear their concerns and priorities.

We have a lot of work ahead of us to ensure that Congress and the administration understand where Indian country stands on these and other important issues. NIGA will continue to work to ensure that Indian tribes have a voice on Capitol Hill and to protect tribal sovereignty. By working together, we can ensure that Indian country’s voice is heard.