Casino Revenue Helps Tribes Aid Local Governments

Originally published on June 1, 2011 6:33 am



Many cities and counties around the country are still struggling with budget shortfalls. But in Washington State, some local officials are being thrown a lifeline from Native American tribes. Tribes don't pay taxes, but those with casinos have to give some of their earnings to local governments.

As NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, some tribes are giving above and beyond what they have to.

HANSI LO WANG: Prosecutor Mark Roe is sitting in his office in Everett, Washington, and he's holding a photocopy of a check.

Mr. MARK ROE (Attorney): I feel like it should be really huge, like Ed McMahon used to have people hold up, because I don't know about you, but I've never held a check that big.

WANG: How big? $86,864 - just enough to keep a lawyer for one year in the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

Mr. ROE: We're not fully funded. And so either we find some ways to get that money ourselves, or we tell people they're out of a job.

WANG: Roe has already laid off four of his 12 deputy prosecutors in the county's district court because of recent budget cuts. But that big check from the Stillaguamish, a local Native American tribe, saves him from laying off yet another. The tribe can afford to give them money, because business is good.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Angel of the Winds, the world's friendliest casino. I-5, exit 210, just three minutes east.

WANG: Angel of the Winds is the Stillaguamish Tribe's only casino. It's in the woods about an hour north of Seattle. The tribe won't say exactly how much money their casino brings in, but in the middle of the afternoon, the casino floor is pretty full.

Mr. SHAWN YANITY (Chairman, Stillaguamish Tribe): My name is Shawn Yanity, chairman of Stillaguamish Tribe.

WANG: Yanity says after the county prosecutor came to tribal council asking for money, writing a check was an easy decision.

Mr. YANITY: Our council was very supportive.

WANG: Immediately?

Mr. YANITY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANITY: Yeah. I think we thought about it for that day, and turned around and let them know we were interested in helping out.

WANG: Yanity's tribe has its own tribal court system. It's separate from the local county's. But he says it's still important for the tribe to help pay for county services.

Mr. YANITY: The fire departments, prosecutor's office, law enforcement, you know, and our schools are such a vital part of the infrastructure to our communities that if you can enhance, enhance those programs, it's better for the community.

WANG: Around the country, casino revenue has allowed tribes to support their neighbors financially.

Mr. JOSEPH KALT (Co-director, Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development): It was a simple formula for success.

WANG: Joseph Kalt co-directs the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. He says as tribes started hitting the jackpot with casino ventures, tribal governments also started to see a new role they could play: the community patron. And it turns out there's a key factor that makes it possible for tribes with casinos to do that.

KALT: Be close to a whole lot of people, say in Southern California, or around Seattle, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Tucson, Albuquerque. You get beyond that, and pretty quickly, you realize that's still only a handful of the more than 300 reservations in the United States.

Mr. MELVIN SHELDON (Chairman, Tulalip Tribes): We ourselves needed help throughout the years.

WANG: That's Melvin Sheldon, chairman of the Tulalip tribes. They own one of Washington's biggest casinos. Sheldon says before that was built, the Tulalips' depended on grants from the U.S. government.

Mr. SHELDON: Today, though, we're in a little bit different position. We're able to help out other communities.

WANG: Sheldon points to the $1.3 million the Tulalip tribes recently gave to the local school district after they heard about possible budget cuts. Most tribes around the country still barely have enough resources to support even their own members. But for the tribes that can give, Sheldon says it's a way to say hey, we've made it, and this is who we are.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.