People were sitting on the floor and standing in the hall Tuesday as state leaders and representatives of Native American tribes met at Payson Town Hall to discuss the evolution of Arizona casino gambling.
The task at hand: review, refine and, if necessary, retool the compacts that exist between the state and Native Americans who operate casinos on their reservations.
Those compacts, required by federal law, govern how gaming is regulated within a state. By law, if a state fails to enter into a compact with a tribe, or the tribe can prove that the state failed to negotiate in good faith, the U.S. Department of the Interior can enter into its own compact with that tribe.
"In other words," said Paul Walker, public information officer with the Arizona Department of Gaming, "if we want to have any say about how gaming is operated in the state, we need to come to the table."
Seventeen of Arizona's 21 tribes have compacts with the state, with 15 casinos currently in operation. Even though the agreements are good for three more years, Walker said Governor Jane Hull thought it best to begin negotiations now.
"It can become a lengthy process," Walker said Thursday. "In some states, those negotiations have lasted as long as a couple of years, and in some cases, even ended in litigation.
"The governor felt that starting now, we could end up with better compacts," he said.
Lance Decker, of LL Decker and Associates and moderator of Tuesday's hearing, said he was surprised by the number of people who crowded into the council chambers for the first in a series of gaming hearings set to take place throughout the state.
"Obviously, we didn't expect this kind of crowd," he said.
Tribes from all over central Arizona attended the meeting, bringing with them supporters from their communities.
"We're probably not going to answer a lot of your questions here tonight," Decker told the audience, "but we will record all of your comments, and include them in our report to the governor."
Most of those in attendance said they were in favor of the compacts and the achievements Indian gaming has allowed Native Americans to accomplish in their communities.
"I don't see how you could say there was anything but a real clear message up there," Walker said Thursday. "The White Mountain Apache Tribe and the Tonto Apache Tribe have forged excellent working relationships in the communities they're in."
One by one, tribal leaders told state officials that Native American gaming has improved their lifestyles and lessened dependence on state funding.
But despite the audience's outpouring of support for gaming, a handful of people came forward to oppose certain gaming practices.
A few service organization representatives said Native American bingo halls had all but killed their bingo fund-raisers. Other opponents said they thought gaming was an acceptable enterprise, but it shouldn't be limited to reservations.
Leveling the playing field
Norman Clayton, owner of two bars in Phoenix, said his complaint was that Indians don't have to pay taxes.
"Every week, I go to the mailbox, and there's another notice of a tax I have to pay," he said during a break. "Why don't they have to pay taxes, or at least let's even the playing field by allowing us to have a few machines in our businesses."
Clayton said Arizona should consider the model established in Connecticut, where Native American's pay a portion of their profits to the state. In Connecticut, the tribes operate on "limited exclusivity," Walker said, which is a financial agreement with the tribes providing funds to the state in exchange for the its guarantee that gaming will be limited to tribal lands.
"That is not a tax, under (the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act)," Walker said. "Rather, it's a payment for a benefit."
Connecticut isn't the best example of how these agreements can work, he said, because that state's tribes turn over 25 percent of their revenues -- or about $80 million a year --to the state.
A better example of limited exclusivity can be found a little closer to home. New Mexico is the most recent state to negotiate an exclusivity agreement with its tribes. In that deal, the tribes turn over 6 percent of their revenue to the state.
Without that kind of agreement, Arizona tribes don't have to disclose their financial records to state officials, Walker said. Based on recent newspaper articles, however, he estimates that Arizona tribes pull about $700 million out of the pockets of their patrons each year. If Arizona had the same 6-percent agreement that New Mexico has with its tribes, that could mean an added $42 million a year to the state.
A change in perspective
Walker said he doesn't expect the same positive atmosphere to prevail at the three remaining hearings.
"There was a lot of love in that room Tuesday night," Walker said. "I don't think we'll see the same reaction next Tuesday (during a hearing in Phoenix). I think when you talk about some of the smaller rural areas that have had economic struggles, casinos seem to have been positive. They seem to increase tourism. They seem to extend the tourists' stay. They do increase the amount of money tourists spend in those communities.
"Where the benefits maybe aren't so clear, and I guess we'll find out, is when we have these casinos right next to big urban centers," he said.
The public hearings will end Dec. 16 and state officials expect to release their final report on their findings in early January, Walker said.
"We plan on sharing that with the tribes, to let them know what the Arizona public is talking about," he said. "We could start some serious, substantive discussions around the second week in January."