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    Monday, December 05, 2022

    Dubious tribal recognition rule fix

    Three groups that have tried for decades to be recognized as Connecticut Indian tribes in order to build and operate casinos are still trying. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is apparently doing what it can to help them and aspiring casino owners. But the bureau went too far when it proposed changing the rule that requires tribes seeking recognition to prove they were part of the American landscape when George Washington was president. Under the change, they would only have to prove they were around for Franklin Roosevelt's first term.

    Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Connecticut's congressional delegation were not amused and have now reminded the Obama administration on two occasions that they strongly and unanimously oppose any easing of requirements for tribal recognition. And this is a nonpartisan issue in the campaign. Gov. Malloy's Republican opponent, Tom Foley, also thinks the rule change is a bad idea.

    All agree the Eastern Pequots of Stonington, Golden Hill Paugussetts of Colchester and Trumbull and the Schaghticottes of Kent should still have to prove they were functioning tribes when the nation was founded in 1789, not when the New Deal was in its second year in 1934.

    In a letter to the Department of the Interior this month, the state's two senators and five House members echoed Gov. Malloy, who had earlier told President Obama that easing the recognition requirements and allowing additional casinos "would be devastating" for Connecticut. We agree.

    The devastation would take many forms. The recognition of three additional tribes could lead to the construction of more casinos, which the state decidedly doesn't need, on hundreds of acres of land seized from legal, tax-paying owners.

    In addition, new casinos could well void a lucrative agreement with the two existing casinos that gives the state a 25 percent cut of their slot machine revenue. This windfall has ranged from a high of $407 million in 2007 to $296 million last year as competition from new casinos in nearby states has impacted the two casinos, a condition that could worsen as casinos are opened in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

    The governor's letter to President Obama seems to have impressed the bureau and even though it hasn't changed its position on the new recognition date, it is offering the state a possible exemption. The BIA now says that in the case of tribes rejected in the past, proving their viability back to 1934 would not be sufficient. They would also need the approval and support of those who opposed their prior recognition effort. That is not about to happen in Connecticut.

    However, the matter will not end there as a leader of at least one of the claimants, the Eastern Pequots' James Benny Jones Jr., has said he has grounds to appeal and plans to proceed. The Easterns may well have a case in arguing that this added requirement represents unequal treatment under the law. Mr. Jones, the tribe's lawyer, accused the BIA of succumbing to political pressure, which is certainly true.

    Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who has fought the three groups since he became attorney general more than 20 years ago, is also concerned that the BIA rules aren't specific enough about getting the consent of opponents and says he will lobby the BIA to toughen the draft. The best option is to stick with the old requirement that a tribe has to prove some reasonble level of continuity back to the nation's founding.

    This dispute will undoubtedly extend into Connecticut's next gubernatorial administration and quite possibly the next presidential one as well. Connecticut's leaders must remain vigilant. Allowing casinos in every corner of this tiny state is not good public policy.

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