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Spirit Mountain Casino is pictured in Grand Ronde. (Anna Reed/Statesman-Journal via AP)

Tribe says Portland competitor will be harmful

SALEM — The Grand Ronde Tribe expects to lose as much as 41 percent of its revenue after a decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowing the Cowlitz Tribe to build a casino in southwest Washington.

"This will be a big financial hit to the tribe, and as a government that offers essential services like health care and education, we have to decide where we go from here because of this decision," tribal lobbyist Justin Martin said.

The tribe contends the Cowlitz casino will cause a loss of just over $100 million of the Grand Ronde's estimated $244 million annual revenue stream, which is generated largely by Spirit Mountain Casino. Martin said the tribe arrived at the estimate by using a market projection based on distance from market and estimated drive time.

In an effort to stop the Cowlitz casino from completing construction, the Grand Ronde council voted to authorize filing a motion with the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month. If the challenge to the Supreme Court fails, Martin said, the tribe would explore other revenue sources.

"We have a responsibility to provide services to our members and we'll look at other opportunities, either through economic diversity or gambling opportunities if they present themselves," Martin said.

The tribe recently purchased land in Wood Village and is looking at ways to use the property as part of the effort to offset the estimated revenue loss.

However, the Oregon constitution prohibits privately owned casinos, making it difficult to run a competing gambling operation on the property.

"If we were to take the land into trust it would be part of the reservation. I think the reality is that you need to see a policy change in Oregon. I think it's safe to say that that we'd have to look at several ways to do that, including going to the voters of Oregon to try and make something like that happen — which at this point, in the face of revenue losses, is something we are going to explore," Martin said.

Six percent of tribal revenue goes directly to the state and 94 percent goes to tribal programs such as education, pensions and health care. Health care accounts for about 60 percent of the tribe's expenses. Statewide, Oregon's tribe spends 65 percent of its revenue on health care, according to the 2013 Oregon Tribal Gaming Analysis Report.

Currently, members of the Grand Ronde tribe receive free health care from the tribal government, but it's possible eligible members may be moved to the Oregon Health Plan, Martin said.

"We're going to look at everything," he said.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said tribal members who qualified for the Oregon Health Plan would be admitted to the program.

Plans for the Cowlitz casino have been in motion for nearly a decade. The decision by the appeals court July 29 was the result of a complaint by the Grand Ronde arguing that the location of the casino is 14 miles from the Cowlitz tribe's ancestral lands.

Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, federally recognized tribes are permitted to operate a casino on their reservations.

The most recent breakdown of tribal gaming revenue in Oregon shows $477 million being generated in 2013; 72 percent of the $126.4 million spent by out-of-state gamblers was spent at tribal-owned casinos. Grand Ronde said that if the Cowlitz tribe's casino is allowed to be completed, the money being spent by tourists in Oregon will stay in Washington.

Nationally, Indian gaming has grown with 244 tribes operating gaming facilities in 28 states in 2013. According to the 2015 Indian Gaming Industry Report, the facilities generated $28.3 billion the same year.

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