Lawmakers reject plan to expand casinos in North Dakota

AP News
Posted: Mar 23, 2017 5:48 PM

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Republicans who control the North Dakota House rejected their leader's plan Thursday to more than double the number of casinos in the state, a push some lawmakers viewed as a threat of payback against American Indian tribes for protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Under the proposal by Majority Leader Al Carlson, a Fargo Republican, voters would decide whether to change the North Dakota Constitution to add six state-regulated casinos to the five current ones on tribal land. The House defeated the proposal, 63-28.

Carson denied his bill was related to the protests against the pipeline led by the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes. The state has spent millions of dollars in law enforcement and cleanup at camps near a disputed portion of the line.

He argued that his plan should be viewed as a "pre-emptive strike" against a voter initiative that could establish casinos with rules less desirable to lawmakers, he said.

"It might be a whole lot worse if the people bring it," Carlson said during the floor debate Thursday.

Carlson, who has served in the Legislature since 1993 and as the top House Republican for a decade, downplayed the overwhelming defection from those in his own party, which holds an 81-13 advantage over Democrats. No Democrat voted in favor of the resolution.

"I expected it," Carlson said after the vote.

In an interview, he said he "didn't go around breaking arms" trying to persuade colleagues to vote his way. He said it was the first vote that he has pushed a primary sponsor that has been killed during his tenure as majority leader.

Carlson's powerful position in the House allowed him to introduce the measure nearly two months into the legislative session, as well as amend the proposal through a series of procedural gymnastics to get it to the House floor.

The resolution originally was billed as a way to encourage rural economic development, through state-owned casinos outside of big cities. It was later changed to allow for state-regulated, privately owned casinos to be built anywhere in the state as long as they were at least 40 miles from one of North Dakota's five American Indian reservations, which all have gambling facilities.

The House Judiciary Committee gave both proposals overwhelming "do not pass" recommendations.

Shannon Roers Jones, a Casselton Republican, carried the bill on the House floor Thursday, and urged the chamber to kill the proposal. Among the reasons was the perceived detrimental effect might have had on relationships with tribes in the state.

"There were concerns among committee members that the introduction of this resolution has the appearance of being a response to the recent issues being faced by the state with regard to protest sites," she said.