WASHINGTON — The leader of a major gaming tribe warned Congress on Thursday against legalizing online gambling in ways that would give Nevada companies a “head start” in the lucrative Internet market.
Tribes must be given the chance to compete on a “fair and level playing field. It must be open to everyone at the same time,” said Bruce Bozsum, council chairman of the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut.
Bozsum said at a Senate hearing that efforts to give preference to established companies under the guise of “consumer protection” or “experienced operator requirements” that delay or exclude tribes “must be categorically rejected.”
“All tribes would agree that there cannot and must not be a head start for Nevada, New Jersey or other commercial casino states into the Internet gaming market,” he said.
He further warned lawmakers against writing online gaming bills “behind closed doors and with little or no input from tribal stakeholders.”
Bozsum’s tribe operates the Mohegan Sun, one of the nation’s largest Indian casinos. The Mohegans are seen as one of the tribes well-positioned to take advantage of legal online gaming.
But the hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee revealed splits among gaming tribes as they ponder a future online. Congress is considering legislation that would legalize and regulate Internet poker.
The Tulalip Tribe, which runs a resort casino north of Seattle, sees online gaming “as a direct threat to the economic growth in Indian country,” Vice Chairman Glen Gobin said.
“Do you think that tribes are going to compete with Harrah’s on the Internet?” Gobin said. “My customer base would be diminished. If this turned on tomorrow, I don’t think a majority of tribes are ready to go.”
Without cushions for tribes, “many of the Indian nations will simply be run over,” said Penny Coleman, a Washington attorney who specializes in Indian law.
But Bozsum said the Internet “has no boundaries. Nobody is going to be limited in what they do. It is an opportunity tribes should not miss. If commercial businesses do it we will never catch up after the fact.”
On one key issue, whether Internet gambling should be controlled federally or by individual states, Bozsum said the Mohegans favor Uncle Sam.
“There is greater opportunity for everything to be federal, which would make it fair and across the board for all tribes and all businesses,” he said. “It is one set of rules that everybody will have to follow. It gets more complicated if you go state to state.”
But in a related move Thursday, Idaho’s Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter sent a letter urging Congress to back off legalizing online gambling, saying it is a matter best left to states.
Otter, a Republican, became the second governor in a month to protest proposed federal bills to regulate gambling on the Internet. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said he feared online gaming could destroy his state’s lottery.
Otter made a similar point in a letter sent to Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., the chairwoman of a House subcommittee that is holding hearings on the topic.
“The states have extensive experience in the gaming arena,” Otter wrote. “Accordingly any federal encroachment on this traditional state prerogative is ill-advised.”
Bono Mack’s subcommittee on commerce, manufacturing and trade has scheduled a hearing today on Internet gambling, following up on one held last month.
Witnesses will include Nevada Gaming Control Board Chairman Mark Lipparelli; American Gaming Association chief Executive Officer Frank Fahrenkopf Jr.; and New Hampshire Lottery Executive Director Charles McIntyre.
Lipparelli will tell lawmakers that Nevada supports federal regulation of Internet gambling, according to a copy of his statement posted to the panel’s website.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com