North Dakota casino proposal risks angering tribes

By James MacPherson, Associated Press

North Dakota's top House Republican is proposing six state-owned casinos, a move that risks angering American Indian tribes at a time relations have already been rubbed raw by the dispute over the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

In this Jan. 17, 2017, file photo, House Majority Leader Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, speaks in front of the House Appropriation Committee in Bismarck, N.D. Carlson proposed six state-owned casinos on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, a move that risks angering American Indian tribes at a time relations have already been rubbed raw by the dispute over the Dakota Access oil pipeline. The only casinos in North Dakota are on the state's five American Indian reservations, and those are central to the tribes' economies. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's top House Republican is proposing six state-owned casinos, a move that risks angering American Indian tribes at a time relations have already been rubbed raw by the dispute over the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

The only casinos in North Dakota are on the state's five American Indian reservations, and those are central to the tribes' economies. Some lawmakers say Fargo Rep. Al Carlson's proposal to add six state-owned casinos is little more than a threat of payback for millions of dollars in law enforcement and other costs the state bore because of protests over the Dakota Access pipeline.

"It's another direct consequence of the pipeline protests, no question," Rep. Pam Anderson, a Democrat from Fargo, said Thursday.

Carlson said his idea is not "anti-American Indian," but rather a way to establish casinos as "destination-oriented attractions" and use profits from them to lessen — or eliminate altogether — state sales tax and corporate income tax.

Many lawmakers believe the measure has little chance of passing, but they fear it's further damaged the state's relationship with its tribes.

While the state supported the four-state pipeline, some of its tribes led the protests against it and set up an encampment near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation that at times drew thousands of people from around the U.S. The Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes say the $3.8 billion pipeline threatens their drinking water and cultural sites — claims the pipeline developer disputes.

Patrick Packineau, general manager of the Four Bears Casino on the Fort Berthold Reservation, would not comment on any political motivations behind Carlson's proposal, but he said North Dakota already has enough casinos.

"The state of North Dakota has a limited market, as far as gamblers," he said. "Additional casinos would only cannibalize the market even further."

The Fort Berthold Reservation also has oil that contributes to its economy, though Packineau said the casino is important to the reservation. About 20 percent of the 1 million barrels of oil produced daily in North Dakota come from the reservation, occupied by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes.

But North Dakota's other reservations don't have oil and rely heavily on casinos to provide jobs and revenue. Packineau's casino alone employs 300 people.

North Dakota's overwhelmingly male and nearly all-white Republican-led Legislature already has approved legislation aimed at pipeline protesters, including measures that make it a crime for adults to wear masks in most cases and that increase penalties for rioting and trespassing. Those were among the first bills signed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, who was elected in November and promised a "fresh start in our relations with all tribal nations who live with and among us" at his state-of-the state address.

The Legislature has killed a handful bills intended to heal some wounds from the protest activity, including one that would have required "cultural competency training" for lawmakers and another that would have allowed tribal flags from the state's five tribes to be on display in the Capitol.

Sen. Richard Marcellais, a Democrat from Belcourt and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, sponsored the cultural competency training bill. Marcellais was visibly upset when Carlson's casino measure surfaced. He said it was clearly aimed at hurting casinos on Indian land.

"It's racist," Marcellais said. "I feel like going over there and knocking him through the window."

Carlson's resolution is a proposed constitutional amendment that would go to voters if lawmakers give the OK. It does not need the governor's approval, but Burgum issued a statement indicating he opposes the idea.

"The state should not be getting into the casino ownership business," Burgum said.

Sen. Lonnie Laffen was the original author of the proposal. The Grand Forks Republican said he held off introducing it this year because of tensions between the state and the tribes.

Instead, he said, "Carlson took it over."

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