Casino Closures Impact Tribes and States Amid COVID-19

Most tribal gaming operations have been closed since March to ensure the public’s health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic, severely impacting tribes and laying bare two misconceptions… that “Native Americans are casino rich” and “Native Americans do not pay taxes.” In fact, the loss of revenue, wages, supply chain orders and charitable donations as a result of COVID-19 has impacted even the most prosperous gaming tribes as well as jobs and state revenues.

Contrary to popular belief, fewer than 15% of American Indian tribes operate prosperous casinos. More than 400 tribes in the U.S. are not federally recognized and cannot rely on gaming for a revenue stream. And less than half (about 38%) of the 574 tribes that are federally recognized actually operate casinos. Meanwhile, though there are about 75 highly profitable casinos, others barely break even. These smaller casinos, however, help create local jobs for tribal and non-tribal members living in rural locations.

My tribe – the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation – opened their gaming operation in the late 1990’s. And while our compact with the state of Kansas indicates there will be no direct revenue-sharing by the tribe to the state, and the state will not directly tax the tribe for its operation, the state does require our tribe to fund the entire operating budget of the State Gaming Department. Additionally, we must allocate a certain percentage of gaming profits to charity – despite not being in the best location for revenue generation within Kansas.

Unlike the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, the Hard Rock Casino in Florida or the Table Mountain Casino in California – each of which has their own terms under a state compact –  my tribe launched its casino through an outside management company and did not become a tribally owned and operated casino until 10 years later. Like many tribes, we depend on gaming revenues in order to sustain a minimum standard of living for our tribal communities – from building homes for Elders and awarding scholarships for our youth, to funding our local court system and social services.

Like many others, the Potawatomi Nation employs Native American staff (roughly a third of its workforce). The rest are non-Native employees from surrounding communities. And just like other Americans – every single employee pays taxes on their wages. Not to mention they’re putting their dollars back into the local and state economy. This aligns with a recent story in Oregon where closed casinos are hammering the tribal economies and surrounding communities.

The Indian gaming industry is facing an $18 billion loss due to the coronavirus. It will likely survive, but even as some casinos re-open, a host of issues will cascade from the economic impact of this pandemic, including loss of reserves and investments, increasing debt and re-employment hurdles. Ernie Stevens, Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), along with several individuals within the U.S House of Representatives, regularly advocate for fair legislation impacting tribal casinos and are now pushing for COVID-19 relief funding through the CARES Act. What the public and lawmakers most need to understand is that tribal casinos are economic drivers that benefit entire communities – not just the tribes but also their states – and they deserve to be considered in the next stimulus package.

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