Legislative committee gives casino idea a hearing

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Cowlitz Chairman Bill Iyall appeared Friday before the state Senate Commerce and Labor Committee in Olympia for the first of three public hearings on a proposed tribal-state compact.

Iyall said regardless of whether a federal court challenge kills the tribe’s plans to take land west of La Center into trust and build a casino, a compact with the state gambling commission will let the tribe lease its allotted 975 terminals to tribes that do have casinos.

The House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on the issue at noon Monday. The gambling commission will have a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. May 8 at the Comfort Inn Conference Center in Tumwater.

Both hearings can be watched at http://tvw.org.

Only two people spoke at Friday’s hearing.

John Bockmeier, a consultant for the La Center cardrooms, said the state should wait for the outcome of the federal court case before agreeing to a compact.

La Center Mayor Jim Irish, meanwhile, expressed support for the tribe and the compact.

The federal decision to let the tribe take approximately 152 acres west of La Center into trust has been challenged by several groups, including Clark County, the city of Vancouver and the La Center cardrooms. While a decision from a federal judge is expected this year, the outcome will likely be appealed.

The legal challenge has taken on special significance after the Obama administration chose to make the Cowlitz land trust a test case of a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In that ruling, known as Carcieri, the high court said the government can put land into trust only for tribes that were under federal jurisdiction in 1934.

In saying in December 2010 that the Cowlitz could establish a reservation, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk addressed Carcieri at some length in his ruling.

“For purposes of our decision here, I need not reach the question of the precise meaning of ‘recognized Indian tribe,’ as used in the (Indian Reorganization Act), nor need I ascertain whether the Cowlitz Tribe was recognized by the federal government in the formal sense in 1934, in order to determine whether land may be acquired in trust for the Cowlitz Tribe,” Echo Hawk wrote.

The Cowlitz were federally recognized in 2000; that ruling was challenged and reaffirmed in 2002.