Tribes look to governor in fight to expand casinos

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Updated, 12:15 p.m., 2/25/19

The quest of Michigan’s tribal casino resorts to expand beyond their boundaries wasn’t a hot topic during last year’s election between now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Bill Schuette.

Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a Democratic election-night party on November 6, 2018 in Detroit | Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

But concerns may come for the forefront soon — and have big implications for Michigan and its largest city.

Three big questions loom:

  • Should some of the state’s 12 tribes, which now operate 26 gaming centers and resorts on designated lands, be allowed to launch new operations on non-reservation properties that they have acquired?
  • If they succeed, will this have implications beyond Michigan, so new casinos will be able to operate virtually anywhere?
  • What will happen to Detroit bankruptcy aid generated by three non-tribal downtown corporate casinos if suburban Native American gaming centers open and sap chunks of this designated revenue?

That’s where Whitmer’s voice and views will come into play — not only in state government policy, but in advice to the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs that oversees the enterprises.

Right now, only three casinos in Michigan are allowed to operate off-reservation and they’re all in Detroit: MGM Grand, Motor City and Greektown.

Several tribes oppose non-reservating gaming plans. There are court cases pending, which could have implications both in Michigan and nationwide.

Opposition tribes succeeded for the last few years in thwarting expansion plans while Republican Rick Snyder was governor.

But they are concerned that Whitmer, a Democrat, may take the view — similar to former President Barack Obama — that Native Americans should not be restricted any more than any other ethnic group in pursuing free enterprise.

Support for expansion

Michigan’s first Native American-operated casinos opened in the 1980s.

In the past, the sole forms of legal gambling were bingos, horse racing, local “Las Vegas Nights” ostensibly for charity and finally, starting in 1972, the state lottery.

The casinos create 17,000 direct and spinoff jobs, with about one-third held by tribal members, according to the American Gaming Association. They also generate about $400 million for the state budget and $300 million for local municipalities.

Tribal casino expansion advocates such as Larry Romanelli, omega for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, say Native Americans need more jobs, and some of the established tribal leaders are afraid of competition.

Romanelli said that the freedom to expand casino sites would continue to bolster the state’s economy. He said public opinion is on their side, citing a Little River proposal for a new casino in suburban Muskegon as an example.

“As I travel around, the support for our Muskegon project is very much alive,” Romanelli wrote in a February newsletter to tribal members. “There were 53 people who spoke [at a recent public hearing] and 50 of them were in support.”

Indeed, the three opponents voiced overall religious and moral objections to gambling, not to the concept of Native American tribes expanding their businesses.

John Truscott and James Nye represent Native American tribes opposing others’ efforts to open casinos beyond their borders. Nye is a spokesman for the Gun Lake Casino between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo that could be squeezed by the new Muskegon proposal.

John Truscott, spokesman for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, points to the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act of 1988 and the state’s Michigan Gaming Control Board, established in 1996.

“All we are asking is to apply current law that has worked well for 30 years,” he said.

Nye, who also works with the Nottawaseppi Huron Band, as well as the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, agrees and said Whitmer’s actions will be key.*

“This governor, at some time during her first term, will have to pick a position,” he said.

For now, the public must wait.

“At this time, we will pass on the opportunity to comment,” wrote Whitmer’s press secretary, Tiffany Brown, in response to a Michigan Advance inquiry.

Detroit comeback threatened

Aid to Detroit is a major point of dispute.

The Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians — operators of five Kewadin casinos in the Upper Peninsula — have obtained property in Romulus. That’s near Detroit Metro Airport, 350 miles away from their reservation.

Nye and Truscott view this as a threat to the combined trio of downtown-based Detroit casinos.

And they said a new gaming center would impact the $180 million annually that the three casinos contribute to Detroit’s beleaguered budget.

Detroit City Finance Officer John Naglick notes that the sum accounts for more than 15 percent of general fund spending. Mayor Mike Duggan credits casino funds for helping Detroit emerge from state receivership last year.

Last year, the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewas were dealt a blow to another expansion plan. For years, they planned to build a $250 million casino adjacent to the Lansing Center, with the backing of now-former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. But current Mayor Andy Schor didn’t share his predecessor’s passion for the project and said that it’s a no-go unless the federal government changes policy.

The Bay Mills Indian Community — 17 miles from the Soo — were the original claimants of non-reservation rights in 2011. The tribe sought neither state nor federal approval when opening a casino down across the Mackinac Bridge in Vanderbilt, near Gaylord.

Snyder administration regulators quickly shut down the facility. The U.S Supreme Court issued an an oddly mixed 2014 decision in Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community that left both sides confused, but claiming at least partial victory. The court ruled that Native American tribes should have rights to operate on non-reservation lands, but that state government could use “available alternative means” to regulate such enterprises.

The 5-4 Supreme Court ruling showed that the Native American gaming issue may go beyond partisanship. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined conservative justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Meanwhile, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, conservatives who can be swing votes, enlisted with Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer on the liberal side.

Since that ruling, the court’s makeup has become more conservative. Scalia has died and Kennedy has retired, with President Donald Trump replacing them with Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, respectively. It’s unclear what that could mean for Native American gaming issues.

While some tribes continue to pursue expansion, Nye argues that the state already is at top casino capacity.

“The gaming market in Michigan is a mature market,” he says.

* This story was partly incorrect in identifying the affiliations of Truscott and Nye.

Mike Thompson
Mike Thompson was a reporter for his hometown Saginaw News for 33 years, writing on local governments, K-12 school districts, neighborhood and poverty-related issues, race relations, and nonprofit agencies. Also, as a young adult, he devoted seven volunteer years as a home-to-home community organizer in a neighborhood that borders Saginaw's downtown.


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