- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2001

The Coushatta tribe of southwestern Louisiana has illustrated again how modern federal Indian policy can produce mainstream middle-class economic prosperity for Indian tribes. But overreaching local government officials now threatening that prosperity also reveal an unwarranted loophole in federal Indian policy that should be closed.

Allen Parish has long been the poorest county in all of Louisiana. But that began to change when the local Coushatta tribe opened the Grand Casino there in 1995, next to Lake Charles.

That casino now employs close to 3,000 people, mostly non-Indians from the surrounding area. It is the third-largest private employer in the entire state, paying out more than $60 million in wages and benefits each year.

Since the casino opened, 43 spin-off businesses have also sprouted up nearby, creating another estimated 2,000 new jobs. The casino was estimated to generate $122.5 million in new sales at other firms in Louisiana last year alone, in addition to $250 million in construction spending since 1995.

As a result of this economic boom, local government tax collections have risen by about $3.5 million per year, with another $4.4 million for the state, for a total of $7.9 million in additional taxes each year.

Tribal governments are directly answerable to the federal government and not under state and local authority. But federal law requires tribes to enter into an agreement with their states for the opening of new gaming facilities, to specify the responsibilities of the tribes and state and local governments in operating and serving the facilities.

The Coushatta tribe entered into such an agreement with the state of Louisiana in 1993. Neither the state nor local governments have any authority to tax tribal revenues, but the Coushatta tribe wisely recognized the desirability of sharing the wealth. So the tribe agreed to pay local governments 6 percent of net revenues from the casino, ostensibly to pay the costs of local government services such as roads and police protection required by the casino.

As that agreement approached the end of its term last year, the tribe proposed exercising a provision to extend it on the same terms for seven more years. But grasping local bureaucrats convinced Gov. Mike Foster to reject that proposal, in the hope of getting more.

Ultimately, the state and the tribe agreed to a new gaming compact with the same 6 percent revenue-sharing provision. But they were shocked when the Bureau of Indian Affairs refused to approve the provision. The BIA quite rightly ruled that unless the local governments could show that the funds paid by the tribe were used for the costs of services for the casino, the 6 percent assessment was an illegal local government tax on Indian gaming revenues. Since the local governments failed to make that showing, the BIA approved the new gaming compact except for the 6 percent revenue-sharing provision. If only the state and locals had agreed to continue the original agreement, BIA approval wouldn't have been required.

Seeking to maintain its good neighbor policy, the Coushatta tribe offered to contribute voluntarily to local governments the $49 million over the next 7 years that the 6 percent assessment had been expected to generate. The tribe asked only that the local governments document that these funds were used for services related to the casino.

Most local government officials seemed glad to accept this generous offer. But a band of overreaching local power mongers led by District Attorney Doug Hebert raised a ruckus that killed the idea. Obtusely, they argued that requiring accountability as to how the funds were spent amounted to the tribe asserting control over local non-Indian governments, and the subversion of local democratic rule. Mr. Hebert has even argued that asking the parish to use the grant funds only for the purposes for which the money was granted somehow amounts to bribery of public officials to do what the tribe wants.

Gov. Foster has recently signed off on an identical arrangement with the Chitimacha Indians for their casino in another part of the state. But the Hebert faction in Allen Parish has sold the governor a bill of goods in the idea that the Coushatta proposal is somehow different, involving anti-democratic, public bribery. The tribe is simply trying to provide the funds in accordance with all federal legal requirements.

Louisiana officials are now left playing chicken with the jobs of thousands of workers in the poorest parish in the state. Mr. Foster has not yet signed the new gaming compact, and the old one runs out this month. Will the state try to shut down the major source of prosperity in Allen Parish over an illegal local government demand for tribal funds?

At a minimum, Congress needs to provide tribes with the power to sue in federal court to protect their rights from state and local encroachment. Such enforceable rights are essential to the hope of ultimately achieving the American Dream throughout Indian country.

Peter Ferrara is an associate professor at the George Mason University School of Law, and author of "The Choctaw Revolution: Lessons for Federal Indian Policy."

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