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March 14, 2007

Republicans work to make Dems' tribal donations the issue

Posted by David Postman at 8:53 AM

House Republicans last night tried to amend two bills to prohibit the governor from accepting campaign contributions from Washington tribes. The bills involve agreements over fuel and timber taxes. But gambling is at the heart of the move. And so is a concerted GOP effort to raise questions about Gov. Christine Gregoire's financial support from Washington tribes.

Republicans are unhappy with agreements Gregoire has negotiated that will expand the number of electronic slot machines tribes can put in their casinos. Two very similar amendments came up last night when the House debated HB 2008, which would authorize the governor to negotiate an agreement with the Quinault Nation on timber excise taxes, and HB 1426 which would authorize the governor to negotiate fuel tax agreements with tribes.

Both amendments were sponsored by Rep. David Buri, R-Colfax. The amendment on the fuel tax bill said:

The governor may not directly or indirectly accept a contribution from a party to an agreement or consent decree that has been negotiated within the prior four years or is currently under negotiation, if the party is authorized to negotiate with the governor pursuant to this act.

In debating the gas tax bill, Buri told the House last night:

"This gives the governor a tremendous amount of power in negotiations with the very people, the very countries I should say, giving him or her campaign contributions."

He said that when he first proposed the amendment he thought it was a simple, common sense idea and was surprised by the opposition.

"I had a lot of push back, a lot of people saying this is a bad idea. And the more and more I heard about it the more I knew this was the right thing to do."

Buri modeled his amendments after the law that prohibits the insurance commissioner from accepting campaign money from insurance companies. That law says:

No insurer or fraternal benefit society doing business in this state shall directly or indirectly pay or use, or offer, consent, or agree to pay or use any money or thing of value for or in aid of any candidate for the office of insurance commissioner; nor for reimbursement or indemnification of any person for money or property so used.

Buri described his amendments as efforts to bring transparency to the process. But House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler pointed out that records of campaign contributions are already public, and that the state system for reporting is heralded as one of the most open in the nation:

"We have to report every single dime we get. We have to report who gave it to us, where they work. There is nothing cloudy about how we receive campaign contributions."

Kessler also said the amendment was an effort to "exclude an entire population from taking part in our democracy, our democratic elections."

Both amendments failed. But they are part of wider efforts by Republicans and their backers at the Building Industry Association of Washington to raise questions about Gregoire's political ties to the tribes. Tribes are generous donors to Gregoire, state Democrats and last year to a Gregoire-endorsed PAC that raised money for Supreme Court incumbents.

Buri said in a press release last night: "No one on our side of the aisle is accusing the governor of misusing her office."

But the suggestion has certainly been made. In a Feb. 26 letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne asking him to stop the gaming agreement, Deputy Republican Leader Doug Ericksen said:

We are also asking for a denial of this gaming compact to allow time to address questions that have arisen regarding the circumstances of the negotiations and the decision-making process that led to the submission of this compact to your office. Recent news reports have tied substantial campaign contributions from the tribes and tribal gaming interests to key decision-makers. It has led us to consider whether the bargaining position of the state has been compromised.

Republicans may be claiming that "recent news reports" raised issues about the contributions. But the BIAW complains the press has ignored the issue. Last week the BIAW issued a press release that quoted Executive Vice President Tom McCabe:

"It's a shame no reporter or newspaper had the nerve to ask the question we've been asking over and over since last year — what deal did Gregoire cut with the tribes in exchange for their contributions to Alexander's campaign?" said McCabe. "Now we finally know the answer."

The BIAW has been trying to draw attention to the tribal donations since last fall. At the time the group suggested that tribal money to the Supreme Court PAC was being given to sway Gregoire's gambling decisions.

There really hasn't been much coverage and very little that I'd characterize the way the Ericksen letter did. The most pointed writing on the issue has come from News Tribune columnist Dan Voelpel. He wrote last month:

Yet no one has given a detailed account of compelling reasons, court cases or legal rules that explain why Democratic leadership has chosen to hand the tribes of Washington a lucrative gambling expansion. Which leaves us to deduce that campaign contributions to Democratic candidates and interests from tribes and tribal gaming organizations influenced this latest gambling giveaway.

In another column he wrote:

Yes, it all looks like payback by Gregoire and the Democratic-appointed Gambling Commission for piles of campaign contributions the tribes have funneled to Democratic candidates and causes.

Seattletimes.com ran an AP story last week that mentioned the contributions.

Gregoire addressed the issue at her press conference Monday. She defended the agreement as good for the state. She said she was glad that the new agreement will cap the number of tribal casinos in the state and require tribes to make new contributions to programs for problem gamblers and anti-smoking efforts aimed at teens.

Gregoire said the tribes weren't happy with the agreement. And the state, she said, is required to deal with them fairly. But she thinks the state drove a hard bargain. She said that the first tribal gaming compact negotiated before she took office would have allowed up to 81,000 machines statewide. The new agreement allows up to 27,300.

It's not exactly an apples and apples comparison, though. The earlier agreement only allowed each tribe to own 675 machines, but they could lease more from other tribes. The new agreement allows each tribe to own up to 975 machines, according to the Washington State Gambling Commission. The commission has several documents on its Web site detailing the new agreement and how it differs from the earlier compact.

In addition, the Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Puyallup tribes will be allowed to lease 3,500 machines when the new agreement goes into effect, and 4,000 in three years. That's up from 3,000 in the earlier agreement.

Statewide, the new agreement will allow 27,300 machines, up from 18,225 under the previous compact, according to the gambling commission.

The agreement also allows maximum bets on the machines to go up from $5 to $20. Bills and coins could be used, as opposed to the pre-paid plastic cards now required. The hours of operations at the casinos can also be expanded.

UPDATE: It was just pointed out to me that Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, sent a letter to Kempthorne on Feb. 5. He did not raise the issue of tribal donations.

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