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Study finds Montana's Indian gambling relatively quietPosted at 12:26 p.m. July 8

Study finds Montana's Indian gambling relatively quietPosted at 12:26 p.m. July 8

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BILLINGS - Gambling operations run by Indian tribes are surging nationally but remain a small-stakes enterprise in Montana, a new study finds.

The Indian Gaming Industry Report prepared by a Los Angeles consultant found that nationally, tribal gambling operations' revenue grew by 12 percent, to $16.2 billion, in 2003 and nongambling revenue increased 16 percent, to $1.5 billion.

Montana's contributions to those dollar amounts were $14.9 million from gambling and $1.6 million in nongambling revenue, according to the report prepared by Alan Meister of the Analysis Group in Los Angeles. Only Alaska, where there is no video gambling, reported lower amounts.

No one commissioned the study, according to Meister, an economist who said he was prompted by his own interest. The study is available for purchase through a publishing company.

Although the number of Montana tribes with gambling facilities increased from six to seven between 2002 and 2003, the number of tribal gambling machines dropped 12.6 percent, from 794 to 694, the study found. In California, where Indian gambling was a $4.2-billion industry in 2003, there were just over 56,000 tribal gambling machines.

Nationally, Indian gaming has grown rapidly.

From 1988, when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, to 2003 the average growth rate was just under 39 percent, according to the study. From 1994 to 2003, the growth rate was almost 19 percent.

Indian gambling revenue rose from $121 million in 1988 to $8.5 billion in 1998, and $16.2 billion in 2003. Revenue from non-Indian gambling was $26.5 billion last year. But in 2003 the rate of growth in Indian gambling was 12.1 percent, far ahead of the 1.4 percent for non-Indian enterprises.

Meister attributes the increased popularity of Indian gambling to a number of things, among them the geographic location of casinos and the addition of amenities such as hotels and shopping centers.

Gordon Belcourt, executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, said Montana tribes hope to take advantage of the popularity of Indian gambling. A group is working on legislation to put before the 2005 Legislature, Belcourt said.

He told The Billings Gazette the legislation is likely to focus on granting tribes authority to offer expanded gambling options, and on the need to conduct detailed marketing analyses for each reservation, to determine which kinds of gambling would be profitable.

Electronic poker, keno games and pari-mutuel wagering are allowed in Montana. Expansion of the industry could bring in slot machines, craps, roulette and card games if changes in the law allowed.

Nationally, Belcourt said, 75 percent of jobs created by Indian gaming establishments are filled by non-Indians. He said the Legislature should acknowledge both that and the critical problem of unemployment on Indian reservations, as gambling measures are considered.

Gene Huntington of the state Gambling Control Division said tribes are allowed to offer the same games as non-Indian businesses, with a couple of small variations.

Sen. Dale Mahlum, R-Missoula, chairman of the state Gaming Advisory Council, said opening the way for expanded gambling on reservations would be difficult.

Many Montana legislators live in small towns where the community gathering spot is a tavern with a few gambling machines, Mahlum said. Owners of the taverns do not want to compete with large, destination gambling resorts on nearby reservations, and their legislators are mindful of that, he said.

Mahlum said one idea he has weighed would have the tribes seek legislative authority to pool their resources and open two large casinos, one in eastern Montana and the other in the western area.

He said he has also suggested that the tribes might advance their proposals by offering to share some of their gambling proceeds with the state.

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