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Wednesday, May 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A new welfare state? Tribes call Puyallups' plan a gamble

Seattle Times staff reporter

As Puyallup tribal members receive the first of their $2,000 checks in a monthly bonanza of casino payouts, leaders of other Washington tribes question the wisdom of those payments — and wonder if their tribes may be forced to follow suit.

Clearly, the Puyallups' success — totaling some $5.6 million a month — has hit a nerve in Indian country. While some tribal leaders worry the easy money may create a new kind of Indian welfare, others say they fear such payments would undermine efforts to build an economic base independent of casino revenue.

And many are concerned that Puyallup tribal members — flush with cash — will be preyed upon.

Saturday, the Tulalip Tribes will vote on whether to approve a one-time, $10,000 casino payment for every tribal member — $21 million in all. And debate over the per-capita system adopted by the Puyallups is all but expected.

Nationally, only 47 of 201 gaming tribes make per-capita payments to members.

The Puyallup Tribe sees the payments as a way to foster independence and share the benefits of its casino equally, says John Weymer, a tribal spokesman. Programs to help tribal members manage their money already are up and running, and a full-time investment counselor may be hired, he said.

The Puyallup tribal council, in a unanimous vote April 14, boosted the monthly per-capita payments to $2,000 from $300 for every man, woman and child in the tribe. For a family of four, that adds up to $96,000 a year. Children's casino checks will be held in trust until they turn 18, except for $300 per child paid monthly to their parents for expenses.

The casino checks are on top of a $20,000 lump-sum payment every tribal member receives at age 21 as his share of a landmark, $162 million land-claim settlement in 1990.

The first batch of big casino checks went out Friday, less than a month before tribal elections in June. News of the payments is still reverberating among tribes statewide.

John McCoy, director of governmental affairs for the Tulalip Tribes, said for years the tribes have felt pressure to adopt so-called per-capita payments, but the idea was always voted down. Like the Puyallups, the Tulalips operate a gambling casino.

The Tulalip debate about per-capita payments may take on a new urgency Saturday because of the precedent set by the Puyallups, McCoy said. Calling money the root of all evil, he said per-capita payments are a bad idea: "I am afraid of the repercussion. Why go to work? Why go to school?

"We don't know how long gaming will be around, so we need to diversify our economic base. We pride ourselves about looking out for the future of our tribal members. We need to leave a legacy."

The tribe has plowed its casino proceeds into a major shopping-center development along Interstate 5, road construction, water and sewer lines, traffic signals, family services, a medical clinic and other necessities.

The Puyallups, on the other hand, are an urban tribe and don't have some of those basic infrastructure needs. They do operate one of the largest tribal medical centers in the region. The tribe also is small, with only about 2,700 members, but the gambling operation is one of the most lucrative of any operated by the state's 14 gaming tribes.

Darrel Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Nation, which opened the Silver Reef Casino last month, said even if the casino turns a profit, per-capita payments aren't planned. "We feel that we don't want to create another welfare state. ... There is real value in people earning their pay."

Some tribes fear the per-capita payments may also stoke momentum within the state Legislature to expand gambling rights for nontribal cardrooms and minicasinos.

"The sheer volume of revenue is going to tell the powers that be that tribes are well on their way of taking care of their own. There is a success story that others could take advantage of," said Jerry Meninick, tribal-council member for the Yakama Nation.

The Yakama use all their casino revenues for service programs, which would be undercut by per-capita payments because the tribe is so large, with about 10,000 members, said Meninick, who predicted interest in per-capita payments among the Yakama will build nonetheless.

But Meninick wondered about the social effects of a per-capita jackpot. "A lot of people would probably quit school, quit working. There is nothing that would approach that payment except maybe an executive salary."

Meninick says the tribe sees gambling as an uncertain revenue source it hopes to phase out within 20 years. "It is inevitable that the state will allow the same type of gambling we have outside the reservation, and that competition will decrease that revenue. So we are looking at other possibilities to diversify our economy."

Doreen Maloney, member of the Upper Skagit tribal council, echoed that concern. The tribe will break ground on a new golf course in July to complement its hotel and conference center, all attempts to diversify its economic base. "Speaking personally, I do think people will be preyed on; that is a likelihood. Another concern I have is once you set something like this up, do you know that it will continue?"

Not to worry, says Frank Wright, a Puyallup tribal member and general manager of the tribe's cash cow, the Emerald Queen Casino.

The casino, which opened in December 1996, set revenue records nearly each of the last 16 months, including September, Wright said. Gambling-industry experts estimate the Emerald Queen's net profits at $7 million a month.

The Puyallups plan to open a new, $200 million casino in September 2004, with projected net profits of $150 million to $200 million a year. It will be a 360,000-square-foot facility — nearly 10 acres of gambling halls with more than 1,000 video gaming machines and 52 tables; a 250-room hotel, 3,000-square-foot conference space, shopping, and restaurants, including a seafood restaurant encased in an aquarium.

An interim gambling hall, approved by the Washington Gambling Commission last week, will open on the site of the new casino, just east of I-5 in Tacoma, in July. Estimated net revenues: $20 million to $25 million a year.

If anything, the per-capita payments to the tribe's approximately 2,600 members are expected to go up, not down, spokesman Weymer said.

"This is a good thing, not a bad thing. This is a group of people that are trying to be self-sufficient, and they are capitalizing on an entertainment need that the average person goes out of state for. Why not keep that money at home?"

The success of the casino helps not only the Puyallups, but other tribes that lease machines to them, Weymer said. The tribe also has made at least $3.6 million in charitable contributions since the casino opened, he said.

Lynda V. Mapes can be reached at 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.

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