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Tribal governments 'crippled' by lost gambling revenue during COVID-19 pandemic

June 21, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

“If there’s a silver lining in the pandemic, it also opened our eyes to the need for diversifying our revenue," said Marlon WhiteEagle, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Masks and acrylic dividers are now part of the experience at Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, the first of six Ho-Chunk casinos to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic virtually wiped out the main source of revenue for Wisconsin's 11 native tribes during the months they were closed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sickened millions of Americans and killed nearly 118,000, while efforts to slow the spread have triggered the worst economic crisis in generations, but it has been especially hard on Native American tribes that rely on gambling as their main source of income. With every U. S. casino shut down for at least part of the spring and many still not open, some 241 tribes — including all 11 in Wisconsin — stand to lose about $22. 4 billion, more than half their projected revenue this year, according to the National Indian Gaming Association, an inter-tribal organization dedicated to protecting the welfare and sovereignty of tribes. “Gaming for the most part is what we survive on,” said NIGA chairman Ernest Stevens Jr. , a member of Wisconsin’s Oneida Nation.

Wisconsin’s casinos generated nearly $1. 3 billion in gross revenue based on nearly $17. 6 billion in wagers made in the 2018-19 fiscal year, the most recent numbers available from the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which regulates the compacts that govern tribal gaming. “It’s really pretty much crippled our tribal economy,” said Marlon WhiteEagle, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, whose six Wisconsin casinos generate more than 80% of the tribe’s annual operating budget.

The budget cuts have come on top of massive layoffs for a population that already faced significantly higher poverty and unemployment rates than non-native people. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, more than 21% of Native Americans in Wisconsin live on incomes below the federal poverty guideline — a little over $12,000 for an individual or $25,000 for a family of four — compared to 11% of the total population. Unemployment among Native Americans is twice what it is for white residents. “When you have those kinds of deficits in the first place and because tribal gaming is expressly intended as a matter of public policy to mitigate those problems, COVID-19 has had a disproportionately high impact on tribal communities,” said Steven Light, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law & Policy at the University of North Dakota.

Routine cleaning, along with mandatory face masks and temperature checks, are part of the Ho-Chunk Nation's strategy to keep staff and patrons healthy as the tribe reopens its six casinos, which were closed for more than two months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Wisconsin, tribes shared about $54. 7 million of their earnings with the state. The DOA did not respond to interview requests or questions about how the pandemic shutdown may affect tribal or state revenue. Strategic reopeningAbout three quarters of tribal casinos — including 11 of the 26 in Wisconsin — had reopened as of June 18, according to the American Gaming Association, though Stevens said none is operating anywhere near capacity. Ho-Chunk Gaming reopened its top-earning Madison casino on May 27 with less than a third of its 1,300 slot and poker machines in accordance with Dane County’s public health guidelines.

The Ho-Chunk Nation has been gradually reopening its six casinos with limited services and steps designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

We handed out water. ”Additional machines will be opened once acrylic dividers are installed. Ho-Chunk has since reopened its Nekoosa casino and plans to open others in Wisconsin Dells, Black River Falls and Wittenberg on June 29 with limited hours as well as mandated masks and temperature checks — and a ban on smoking. Food service and dealer-run games remain closed for now. “It’s pretty strategic,” WhiteEagle said.

“Let revenue build back up before we go to 24-hour table games like we used to do. ”Stevens said tribal leaders are working closely with public health officials to make sure conditions are safe for casino patrons and workers. “We can’t move forward at the expense of the health of our members and customers,” Stevens said.

“There’s a second wave if we don’t do it right the first time. ”‘Silver lining’ to pandemicThe federal relief bill known as the CARES Act included $8 billion in emergency funding for tribal governments, but Native American leaders say more help is needed. “It’s a starting point, but it doesn’t recover the revenue we did lose from closing,” WhiteEagle said.

A second $3. 1 trillion spending bill introduced by House Democrats would provide another $20 billion for tribes, but it has yet to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. Gary Davis, executive director of the Native American Financial Services Association, argued in a recent USA Today column that the federal government has a responsibility to support indigenous people as repayment for taking their land and way of life. In addition to lost revenue, Davis said, tribal communities face “failing infrastructure, lack of access to health care and a sizable percentage of the population at risk for the most severe COVID-19 complications. ”Gambling revenues are not a panacea and are not meant to supplant the support owed to tribes under federal treaties and compacts.

That’s the message that should be loud and clear to our tribal government. ”WhiteEagle said there are opportunities beyond the casinos and resorts the Ho-Chunk Nation now operates, including housing, child care and transportation — “whatever’s going to bring in some revenue, provide some jobs. ”While the Potawatomi have invested in other enterprises, including a data center and cybersecurity firm, Crawford said gambling still accounts for 90% of its tribal revenue, which highlights the need for further diversification and contingency planning. “I think a lot of tribes are going to be looking at their budgeting processes and reevaluating keeping cash reserve emergency funds,” he said.

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