The Obama administration announced Tuesday it has rescinded a rule that blocked Indian tribes from building casinos far from their reservations, reviving hopes among local officials for casino gambling in the Catskills.
Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk announced the policy change to tribal leaders at the National Congress of American Indians in Milwaukee.
The change overturns the so-called commutability rule, created in 2008 by then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. According to the rule, a casino beyond reasonable commuting distance from a tribe's reservation was damaging to life on the reservation because its residents would move to follow the new jobs.
"The 2008 guidance memorandum was unnecessary and was issued without the benefit of tribal consultation," Echo Hawk said. "We will proceed to process off-reservation gaming applications in a transparent manner, consistent with existing law."
Under existing federal regulations, tribes must satisfy several requirements to operate an off-reservation gambling facility, including having land acquired in trust by the Department of the Interior for the benefit of the tribe; having agreement from the state's governor; allowing public comment; and entering a tribal-state gaming compact.
"This is great news," Thompson Town Supervisor Tony Cellini told the Times Herald-Record of Middletown. "This is just a step in the right direction for jobs that are desperately needed."
Kempthorne used his new commutability rule in January 2008 when he rejected plans for two Indian casinos in the Catskills, citing the long distances from tribal lands to the proposed gambling sites. In rejecting applications from the St. Regis Mohawks of northern New York and The Stockbridge Munsee of Wisconsin, he said the "remote" locations of the casinos could harm the reservation communities by encouraging residents to leave for jobs elsewhere.
Arguing against Kempthorne's ruling, the Mohawks noted that generations of Mohawk ironworkers have commuted long distances to build the skyscrapers of New York and other cities while living on their reservation spanning the New York-Canada border.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, and other New York officials argued that the Catskill casinos have local support and would create jobs.
"Today's announcement cracks open a previously locked door and presents a renewed opportunity to pursue a Catskills casino," Schumer said in a prepared statement.
The St. Regis Mohawk and Stockbridge Munsee tribes said through spokespersons they had no comment Tuesday.