Murkowski must stop casino cronyism

Alaskans are cautious about introducing legalized gambling in Alaska, and for good reason. Like all vices, gambling — even when regulated — brings many harms and few goods. Alaska statutes currently allow limited and regulated charitable gaming in the Last Frontier to the benefit of many nonprofit organizations in the state.

It appears, however, that overreaching Beltway politicians want to open a backdoor for casino owners to set up shop on Native lands. Congress is currently considering legislation, HR1619, to unilaterally approve an off-reservation tribal casino within the state of North Carolina, reversing the will of that state, and disregarding what Native experts and the courts have said about it.

HR1619 wouldn’t only greenlight an off-reservation tribal casino in North Carolina, a project that is currently subject to an ongoing lawsuit and has faced broad public opposition, it would also open a backdoor precedent to do the same in other states.

If it passes, it would fundamentally change the political dynamic of our nation’s gaming policy, effectively removing control of gambling issues from the jurisdiction of the states and federal regulators into the hands of deep-pocketed casino tycoons and their lobbyists. They are the ones pushing this bill through Alaska’s state government, which regulates the gaming industry for charitable purposes, would be affected by this new, backdoor casino approval process enabled within this bill. As we can see, casino interests are already working to erode Alaska’s gaming authority in their quest to start operations in our state.

Case in point: the Native Village of Eklutna sued the federal government for the right to build a casino just 20 miles from Anchorage on their land, trying to claim it as “Indian land” under Indian gaming rules. Both the State of Alaska and the U.S. Department of the Interior do not recognize it as such. The federal court agreed and, on Sept. 22, decided against Eklutna’s effort to build an Indian gaming parlor on their lands.

Alaska’s Assistant Attorney General Maria Bahr noted that the “case (had) the potential to impact the state’s sovereign jurisdictional, regulatory, and taking authority interests.” She’s right. Fortunately, for Alaska, the many legal checks brought by this multi-leveled court process have served to protect the state’s jurisdiction.

This will not be the case, however, if Congress passes HR1619. Its passage would signal to casino developers that they can circumvent the courts and create any gaming facility they want just by persuading enough folks in Congress. First it may be the Catawba Tribe in North Carolina, next it could be the Village of Eklutna in Alaska. After that, it would be hard to keep the dominoes from falling, because the enticing and lucrative nature of gambling revenues would draw more entrants.

HR1619 is moving fast through Congress. It has already passed out of the relevant House committee in August and will likely receive the consideration of the U.S. Senate in short order. That means the bill will likely reach the desk of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. In her nearly 20 years of representing Alaska in the upper chamber, she has served as a staunch defender of the law and has supported the best interests of Alaska. As her committee weighs in on HR1619, she will likely refrain from interfering with the legal jurisdictions of the states and thus not tip the first domino for the casino interests.

Let’s hope Sen. Murkowski will also convince enough of her colleagues to vote against this crony, counterproductive bill, because the last thing we need is for our safe, gambling-free communities to be turned upside down by domino players in Washington, D.C.

Eugene Harnett is a longtime resident of Eagle River, a former State House candidate and an advocate for a gambling-free Alaska who works with Stop Predatory Gambling Alaska.

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