This year marks 10 years since Arizona tribes signed new gaming compacts with the state of Arizona. These compacts provide an avenue for tribes to share gaming revenues with all Arizonans. As of September 2011, tribes have contributed more than $640 million to benefit education, trauma and emergency care, wildlife conservation and business development through tourism. These are real, hard dollars that have flowed to the state in good times and bad. In addition, tribal contributions fully fund the Arizona Department of Gaming, which is one of three entities that regulate tribal gaming, along with funding programs that work to prevent problem gambling.
Shared gaming revenues are deposited into the Arizona Benefits Fund, which has four areas of critical need. Each year tribes contribute 56 percent of shared revenues into the Instructional Improvement Fund, which is distributed directly to school districts throughout Arizona so local superintendents can decide how to spend their portion of the money. They’ve used the money to hire more teachers, improve reading skills and provide many educational programs for students and teachers.
The next significant amount, 28 percent, reimburses hospitals for uncovered trauma and emergency services. Ten years ago, hospitals in Arizona were on the verge of closing or dramatically limiting trauma care, because they couldn’t afford it. Tribal gaming money has enabled hospitals to staff and support this all-important service.
Dr. Peter Rhee, chief, Division of Trauma, Critical Care and Emergency Surgery at the University of Arizona Medical Center, said during a July 8 luncheon with tribal leaders that without funding from tribal gaming, his department couldn’t have handled the tragedy from the Tucson shootings in January 2011.
Wildlife conservation and tourism each receive 8 percent of tribal gaming shared revenues every year. Sherry Henry, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism, credits tribal gaming funds for keeping Arizona competitive with states and countries that have far bigger budgets. As our state’s economy suffered over the past few years, and all state agencies took budget cuts, these dollars became essential to continuing marketing Arizona and supporting our tourism industry. Arizona wild turkeys, Apache trout, and other wildlife cannot talk, but they would have similar stories to tell, because tribal gaming money is used statewide to help wildlife survive and even thrive.
In addition to supporting education, trauma, tourism and wildlife, tribes have given generous grants and donations to hundreds of charities, and given back millions of dollars to local cities, towns and counties. Local governments use these dollars to purchase fire trucks and police cars as well as fund a variety of social service and community programs.
Thirty years ago, no one could have imagined that Arizona tribes, always the poorest of the poor, would be able to give so much to help our state and our neighbors. But caring and sharing for others is an inherent part of tribal culture, as is storytelling. So, for generations to come, our stories will tell of this time when tribes were able to help their own people and their surrounding communities.
Of course the main reason Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was to enable Indian people to help themselves. IGRA stipulates that tribes must use gaming money to provide basic governmental services for their own people and increase economic opportunities for their members. Over the past ten years, tribal gaming money has helped some Arizona tribes move toward their goal of self-sufficiency. The Tohono O’odham Nation, for example, has opened a Community College so its members can continue their education and gain skills to make them more employable. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community built the country’s first major league spring training facility on tribal land, which was the largest construction project in the Southwest for 2010/2011, as part of its overall effort to diversify its economy.
But most reservations are located on remote land, far away from metropolitan centers, and these continue to have serious, unmet needs. On most rural reservations, gaming is the major source of employment for tribal people, yet unemployment levels still can exceed 60 percent. On these reservations, housing, health care and basic social services remain substandard. Gaming is helping to improve conditions, but the needs are overwhelming.
Gov. Jane Hull recognized that tribal government gaming is an unparalleled resource for tribes when she signed the gaming compacts 10 years ago. Tribes very much appreciate her support. Hull signed the compacts after the 17 member tribes of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association took their case to the people of Arizona in the form of Proposition 202. The initiative vote was hotly contested because, 10 years ago, race track owners proposed that they be allowed to open full blown casino-style gambling at their privately owned racetracks. The voters turned them down. Arizonans said yes to the 17-tribe Indian Self-Reliance Initiative which kept limited and regulated tribal government gaming as the Arizona model.
Ten years later that model has generated more than $640 million in direct benefits to Arizona and hundreds of millions more dollars in indirect benefits. It’s a win we all can celebrate.
— Valerie Spicer is executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association.