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$8.5 billion in gaming later, how are tribes doing?

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What the Devil won't tell you

$8.5 billion in gaming later, how are tribes doing?

Meet the new chairman. Same as the old chairman.

  • thomashawk/Flickr
  • Edward D. Manuel, incoming chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation
    forthepeopleteammanueljose.wordpress.comEdward D. Manuel, incoming chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation

Ned Norris, Jr., isn't the tribal chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation anymore and it happened this week. What's that? First you heard of it?

Well, there's a reason the Arizona Republic and Arizona Daily Star don't cover this stuff these days. The rez no longer seems to fit the profile of the sort of things that warrant coverage. Sells never made it easy in the first place.

In fact, the T-O's government announced only the winner of Saturday's tribal chairman vote. They didn't announce the vote total or who lost. The rez has always taken the attitude with the Tucson press, "You took our land. We'll keep our information."

The press wants to focus on the urban core because it's more cost-effective, which means they have to let things go. Cover the tribal election today, tomorrow there's a school issue you are chasing and before you know it you are driving resources away from the strategic focus. This isn't the '80s or '90s anymore, when papers like the Star had a staff or the Tucson Citizen had a pulse, competing for the best stories around the region. This is the '10s and the new normal for journalism is to do less with more, thankful to have a job. How far is Sells? What kind of mileage check? What story can you get for me tomorrow? What's the bang for the buck?

How about a story full of vice and billions of dollars? Which means sex and screwing the poor can't be far behind. Indeed, bang for a buck could be the name of the beat.

Allow me to play assignment editor for any enterprising reporter short on the award-circuit hardware, because someone may want to look into the bigger story on the rez. This year, Arizona gambling revenues for the state alone broke $1 billion over the 12-year life of the Indian gaming compact. Yet, reservation unemployment remains freakishly high and student achievement remains dangerously low. Have we heard wondrous tales of stunning advancement in tribal health services since Anglos started yanking slot levers in on the edge of the rez? Poverty, schools and health care were three areas Indian gaming was supposed to address.

Where has the money gone? You think Rio Nuevo is a boondoggle — a billion dollars and nothing to show ranks pretty high up there. Oh, but it gets better — 8.5 times better actually, because the money reported to the state only accounts for 12 percent of gaming revenues. Now that's an $8.5 billion industry meant to benefit 250,000 people and — what? Someone should look into it, is what I'm saying. Just check this out and see if I seem crazy.

A chunk of gaming revenues — about $45 million per year of late — has gone to pay for Arizona schools so the Legislature doesn't have to pay for Arizona schools. It equates to a little more than $40 a student in K-12 that would otherwise be $160 per Native American resident within the tribes covered by the 2002 gaming compact.

Are Arizonans off the rez getting subsidized schools from the poorest populations in the state? Someone should look into that.

On this issue, however, I don't think I'm drawing on an inside straight to suggest that perhaps the Legislature isn't the culprit. No, our Legislature would look at casino operators and ask, "Wow, that's how you screw The Little Guy? We never thought of that! But isn't that ... oh, evil?"

No, I'm not a fan of gambling. Las Vegas wasn't built by winners taking their money back to Oro Valley. Gambling feeds the lottery culture that suggests that someday millions will fall from the sky in a Scratchers ticket or a big night at the slots. People are actually far more likely to make the money the old-fashioned way if they just have at it. This is a rare time when Doug Ducey, the Legislature and yours truly sort of end up on the same page in a meta sense.

To this end, the Tohono O'odham Nation does get coverage but for it to happen the reservation has to literally take jackhammers and backhoes to the corner of Northern Avenue and the U.S. 101 amidst the Phoenician sprawl. The Arizona Republic is all over a tribal battle with the governor's office right now concerning a casino going in Glendale. The good folks at the Republic are looking into that.

Someone should also look into how much of that $750 million every year is going into the tribal coffers. How much goes to casino operators? How much goes to the tribes themselves? Remember, that 12 percent going to the gaming fund is "off the top." What are the reservation's share after the after the private contractors, the state, cities and towns get paid? In other words how much money is being sucked out of the reservations? Mind you, this is assuming casinos are, in fact run on the up-and-up, with every dime accounted for (clear throat with hope). Someone should look into that.

Maybe plenty of money is getting to the tribes but gets lost in the back-biting, back-stabbing in back-room deal-making that can define tribal politics — a situation made worse without some pesky news outfit there to bitch. Someone should get pesky and look into that, rather than simply re-purposing under their byline competing press releases out of the minority and majority legislative caucuses.

The Tohono O'odham have enough money to secure financing for a $400 million monument of Valley bacchanalia. Both of the Phoenix area's pro sports arenas in the past 12 months have been named after tribal casinos (Jobing Arena — out, Gila River Arena — in; and so long U.S. Airways Arena, hello Talking Stick Resort Arena). The going rate to paste your company's name over an NBA arena ranges from the modest $40 million deal with Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City and a honking $400 million deal between the Brooklyn Nets and Barclay's. Go figure that the casino deals were not announced, as some are and some aren't, but they've got some cash laying around. Someone should look into how much.

No, you can't do this like a Daily Star terrier barking out public records requests and latching on the pant leg of the tribal chairman. You would have to build relationships, stay out of the way, raise your profile on the reservation and keep your head down all at once. It can be done. At a four-reporter city desk in Flagstaff, we had a reporter raised on the Navajo rez who did it brilliantly and we're talking about you, Lukas Velush.

It would require patience from editors (I know, fellow reporters, I hear the laughing) and a news outfit willing to invest resources (I know, publishers, I can picture the milk uncontrollably running out of your nose as you slap your thigh). However, what we have is the state's most impoverished population being promised big returns from an industry that has ruined more than one otherwise upstanding person with self-control issues, and ending up with seemingly little to show for it.

Oh boy, does the story have a lot of zeroes. In fact, there are nine of them. What we have is race, poverty, gambling and billions of dollars, which means sex can't be more than a back seat behind. Anything to write about?

Modern newsrooms pay the corporate beast first and then put out a paper with what's left over in a method embraced at Lee Enterprises, owners of Tucson's own Arizona Daily Star. Back in the days of yore, newspapers could be made very profitable by slicing staff and maintaining revenue. It's called "managing down" and the media conglomerates rode the slash-and-burn model from $20 a share to $50 per share in the mid 2000s. Then, Lee told papers like the Star to do more with less, over and over. It's called eating your seed corn and media conglomerates like Lee are fantastic at it. Their stock now trades at around $3 per share, as they blame the Internet for their lack of relevance.

Someone — up to and including Jerry Colangelo — is making money off Indian gaming but it doesn't seem to be the natives.

Someone should look into who is getting those billions. Maybe start with telling folks in Tucson that the Tohono O'odham have a new tribal chairman. I'm willing to wager $8.5 billion that the issues were poverty, health care and student achievement.

Ned Norris, Jr., isn't the tribal chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation anymore. Edward D. Manuel, who already served as chairman from 1995-2003, is back. You read it here first.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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