When someone says "casino," the image readily comes to mind of little blue-haired ladies and balding men spending their social security checks, while sitting hunched over their favorite machines, readily comes to mind. But is that image fair or accurate?
There's no question about it, gaming -- or gambling -- is controversial. But it's also an industry that has allowed Indian tribes across the nation to do something constructive with the land and the few economic opportunities that remain to them.
Proposition One on the Idaho ballot -- also known as the Indian Gaming and Self-Reliance Act -- will clarify that Indian tribes in Idaho can continue to operate the kinds of gambling they do today, as well as regulate the casinos' growth. If Proposition One passes, the tribes will only be allowed to add 5 percent more new machines every year, and no more than a total of 25 percent over the next 10 years.
The official sponsors of Proposition One are the Nez Perce Tribe and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.
"We had to start it with a petition, and that's what the two tribes did," says Rob Smith, staff attorney and spokesman for the Nez Perce Tribe. "To get it on the ballot, we gathered more than 70,000 signatures from 22 counties across the state." Smith adds that the Kootenai Tribe also support Proposition One.
"I'd say we have a lot of support among the tribes," says Smith.
Over in the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, everyone is pushing for Proposition One to pass as well. That tribe has operated a very successful casino for many years, a casino that has been expanded several times and now is the main source of income for the tribe. Leaders there say the impact of gaming has been enormous -- and positive.
"Our leadership and staff, myself included, has gone all over the state to get support and reach out to every part of the state as best we can," says Bob Bostwick, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's press secretary, adding that Proposition One is so important because it supports a local economy both on and off the reservations.
"That's what we've been trying to explain to people," says Bostwick. "We've talked about how it's going to help us and the economic opportunities that come with being able to do the things we do. That has really turned life around in Indian country."
Smith agrees: "Proposition One mainly does keep the status quo. And just to clarify," he continues, "we do not have slot machines. The Idaho state law allows for a state lottery, horse racing, bingo and raffles for charity, but not for slot machines."
So, what are casinos? They are hardly raffles for charity.
"What we have is a type of state lottery. The machines we have are similar to those used in the state's scratch games," says Smith. "They display symbols electronically and pay out on a ticket of paper, which you can cash in."
But the opposition doesn't agree. State representative Maxine Bell, for one, is challenging the constitutionality of Proposition One.
"The activity that the tribes have now, I think that is unconstitutional if you go by the Idaho constitution," says the Republican legislator. "The second thing that concerns me gravely is that gambling may bring some ills with it that we can't afford. With the budget the state has right now, we are having a hard time providing for the colleges and health care." She says people who become addicted to gambling often become an economic burden to the state, because they need help in dealing with their addiction.
But the casinos and the hotel and visitors industry that comes with successful gambling operations are huge income sources for the tribes -- and the state. In many rural areas, where logging and mining are slowly becoming extinct, the tribes end up being the largest employers through their gaming operations.
A recent study by economists at the University of Idaho found that Indian casinos and the revenue from the more than 1 million visitors they bring into the state every year, support as many as 4,455 jobs, generate $83 million in wages, $250 million in sales and $10 million in state and local taxes.
"We are the second largest employer in the five-county region here. The casinos provide us with money for health care, social services, local charities, schools and local governments," says Smith. "On the Nez Perce reservation, unemployment was 70 percent before we got into gaming. Now it's more like 30 percent. And 30 percent may not be something to be proud of, but it's a lot better than before."
The Nez Perce currently operate two casinos, one near Lewiston and one near Kamiah, but the tribe has plans to build a new $52 million casino on the reservation. It's the building of new casinos that has the opposition worried.
The proposition states that casinos or gaming facilities can be built on Indian land, but it doesn't specify reservations. That has people like Bell worried that casinos will spread outside the reservations on land purchased by the tribes.
Idaho attorney general Al Lance -- after performing the required legal analysis of Proposition One -- has requested that the tribes clarify this language, saying that "Indian Land" is not clearly defined.
Opponents to Proposition One say that the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, for instance, plans to build a casino on land the tribe owns in the vicinity of Idaho State University in Pocatello.
"That is totally baseless," says that tribe's attorney, Scott Crowell. "The allegation that the Shoshone-Bannock are building right next to ISU is simply a red herring created by the opposition to Proposition One."
Crowell says the Shoshone-Bannock tribe already has a compact with the state. That tribe is one in Idaho that is not actively supporting the initiative.
The Nez Perce attorney says the opposition is using the land issue as a "shameless scare tactic" to make voters say no to the proposition.
"The location of Indian gaming facilities is controlled by federal law and by the Secretary of the Interior, not by state law," says Smith. "Any land located outside the reservations that could be used for gaming facilities would have to have been held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the tribe prior to 1988. To get land into a trust now is virtually impossible. And it's economically impossible for the tribes to just buy land willy-nilly across the state. It's not going to happen."
Proposition One would also dedicate 5 percent of the casinos' net revenue to local schools and education programs.
"We are just hoping this will pass," says Smith. "We are major players in the local economy, and this would clarify what we can do, and protect ourselves against costly lawsuits from the opposition in the future."