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Representatives ask state for roulette, craps, video blackjack privileges

HELENA - Leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes told state officials Friday they want more freedom in their gambling operations, including approval to offer roulette, craps and video blackjack.

Tribal representatives also asked the state to allow dozens more video gambling machines, along with bigger jackpots and higher bet limits in tribally owned casinos.

Agreement on those issues is a matter of fairness and economics, Fred Matt, Tribal Council chairman, told Gov. Judy Martz and Attorney General Mike McGrath as the tribe and state began negotiations on a new gambling compact.

"If we have meaningful gaming, economically it's better for the reservation as a whole," Matt said.

McGrath, whose Justice Department enforces gambling laws, said the state cannot agree to allow roulette, craps and video blackjack because the constitution permits only gambling approved by the Legislature and lawmakers have not legalized those games.

He and Martz said questions of more video poker and keno machines, jackpot size and wager limits are negotiable.

The existing gambling agreement between the state and the tribes expires in November.

Gambling on the Flathead Reservation resumed in July 1997 after being prohibited four years. The tribes and the state had been unable to agree on a compact following enactment of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which forbids gambling on reservations without a compact.

The KwaTakNuk Resort in Polson is owned by the tribe and has 41 video gambling machines. The 37 nontribal casinos on the reservation are limited to 20 machines apiece and have a total of 385 licensed by the state.

Dan Decker, tribal attorney, said the tribes should be able to license a comparable number of machines as a matter of fairness and equal economic opportunity. The tribes believe a casino with 300-400 video machines is possible if the state agrees to allow licensing of more machines, he said.

Increasing the maximum payout from a poker or keno machine from $1,000 to $2,000, and raising the bet limit from $2 to $6 will allow the tribes to benefit more financially, Decker said. The changes would apply only to machines in tribally owned businesses.

Ranald McDonald, another tribal lawyer, said the existing $1,000 jackpot limit - $200 more than allowed for nontribal machines - was intended to give an edge to the tribe's gambling operation, but it has made little difference. The higher bet limit is necessary if players are going to have a chance at winning a bigger top prize, he added.

Decker argued that the push for roulette, craps and video blackjack in tribal-owned establishments does not involve new forms of gambling. The state already allows shake-a-day dice games and prize wheels games in bars, and the only difference between blackjack and poker is the image on a video screen, he said.

Decker said greater revenue from gambling would help reservation communities because the Salish-Kootenai government shares thousands of dollars with local governments for such things as fire trucks, road maintenance and water-and-sewer projects.

Such use of gambling and other tribal money should set the tribes apart from private gambling enterprises, Matt said.

"Given an opportunity to operate as a tribal government and not as a Lucky Lil's or Town Pump, we can use the revenue to better our community," he said, referring to a Butte-based chain of combination gas stations, convenience stores and casinos with locations throughout the state.

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