Tribal-state compact sets rules for proposed Cowlitz casino

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Tentative Cowlitz Indian Tribe - State Gaming Compact

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A tentative tribal-state compact for a proposed Cowlitz casino in Clark County was released Tuesday by the state gambling commission.

• Who: The Washington State Gambling Commission.

• What: The commission will have a public hearing on a tribal-state compact for the proposed Cowlitz casino.

• When: 1:30 p.m. May 8.

• Where: Comfort Inn Conference Center, 1620 74th Ave. S.W., Tumwater.

The compact will be applicable only if the Cowlitz Tribe survives a legal challenge to its plans to take approximately 152 acres west of La Center into trust. That lawsuit, filed by Clark County, the city of Vancouver, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and other plaintiffs, is pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Under the proposed compact, the tribe could build two gaming facilities. One could have as many as 75 gaming tables, and a second could have up to 50 tables.

Initially, the wager limit would be set at $250, but after a year the limit could increase to $500.

The tribe could also have as many as 3,000 “tribal lottery player stations,” with as many as 2,500 in one facility. Any terminals beyond the tribe’s allotted 975 terminals would have to be leased from other tribes, however.

Melinda Froud, an attorney for the state gambling commission, said the “player stations” aren’t called slot machines because they don’t contain a random number generator. At a Las Vegas slot machine, for example, the player is just playing against the machine. At terminals in Washington tribal casinos, players are pitted against other players, she said.

The compact requires that 2 percent of gross gaming revenues go toward community mitigation (local law enforcement, emergency services), while one-half of 1 percent of gaming revenues would have to go to nontribal charitable organizations. Other donations (.13 of 1 percent of gross gaming revenues) would have to be made to programs that help addicts stop smoking and quit gambling.

The gambling commission will have a public hearing on the proposed compact at 1:30 p.m. May 8 at the Comfort Inn Conference Center in Tumwater.

The commission will vote to either send the compact to Gov. Jay Inslee for approval or send it back to staff for changes.

The compact must be signed by Inslee and Cowlitz Chairman William Iyall.

Iyall said Tuesday the compact includes the same rules that apply to other tribal casinos in the state.

As for the federal litigation, he’s hoping oral arguments will be scheduled soon and he anticipates a judge’s ruling within the year. He also knows appeals will follow, but if the tribe wins it could start leasing player stations at other casinos, he said.

That would allow the tribe to start earning money to support its programs, he said.

“It will be at least two or three years before we could build our own casino and have it open,” Iyall said.

Litigation history

The tribe applied to take the land into trust in 2002. A Record of Decision was issued eight years later.

In March 2013, a federal judge dealt the tribe a surprising blow when she threw out that 2010 Record of Decision, which was amended in 2012. U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein gave the federal government 60 days to issue a new one and the lawsuit was closed.

A new Record of Decision was issued in April 2013 and was appealed by Clark County, the city of Vancouver and other plaintiffs including the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, operators of the Spirit Mountain Casino in Oregon.

In her March 2013 ruling, Rothstein wrote that the government ran afoul of administrative procedures when it unilaterally changed the 2010 decision.

But by saying the federal government should not have been allowed to issue a 2012 Record of Decision, it left the government in a position to try to defend the 2010 Record of Decision, Rothstein wrote.

“The court will not waste its or the parties’ resources on such a fruitless endeavor,” Rothstein wrote. “The court is also cognizant of the fact that the parties have been locked in this battle for nearly 11 years.”

Plaintiffs argue the tribe’s lands and tribal offices are 24 miles north of the proposed casino site, in Longview, and “most tribal property is even farther away.”

“The casino parcel is a short 16-mile drive from Portland, Oregon, providing easy access to the Portland gaming market,” plaintiffs argue.

In February, Rothstein ruled that she would accept third-party briefs from the city of La Center, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, Chinook Nation and other tribes.

Attorneys for Chinook Nation argue the Chinook have historical ties to the land, and the decision allowing the Cowlitz to take the land into trust was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law.”