The original Prop 202 alliance

Above, the original Prop 202, 17-Tribe Indian Self-Reliance Initiative led by then Salt River Maricopa-Pima Indian Community President Ivan Makil in 2002

When many Arizonans think about Tribal Gaming, the first thing that comes to mind is the bustle of lights and excitement of the casino floors, or the variety of entertainment options at each casino. Though Tribal casinos have been a vital part of Arizona’s entertainment and economic tapestry for over a decade now, seldom do we take the time to reflect on the history and impact of Tribal Gaming for both the Tribes and the state. The truth is that Tribal Gaming has had a significant impact both on and off Tribal lands, providing over $1.3 billion dollars in funding for education, trauma care, conservation, tourism, cities and towns, and much more.

The history of Tribal Gaming in Arizona can be traced back to the 1980s, when a 1987 Supreme Court ruling opened the door open for Tribes to operate gaming on Tribal lands. In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which clarified that a Tribe must be allowed to operate gaming on its reservation if such gaming was permitted within the state the tribe is located. It further clarified that if a tribe wished to operate a Class III, or Vegas-style casino, it must first sign a compact or agreement with the state. In spite of the Act, however, Tribal Gaming and the compacts were far from guaranteed and exist today thanks to the perseverance and determination of courageous Tribal leaders and their people.

Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino

Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel & Casino

During the 1990s, then-Governor Fife Symington approved the first gaming compacts with Tribes, establishing rules and regulations on how Tribal Gaming would operate moving forward. However, Tribal Gaming really began to take its modern form nearly a decade later, when in 2002, Arizona voters approved Proposition 202. This not only authorized the continuation of Tribal Gaming, but also established the Arizona Benefits Fund, where Arizona tribes negotiated a share of their gaming revenues to support specific state and local programs important to all Arizonans. 

Annually, since the passage of Proposition 202, gaming tribes in Arizona have contributed a portion of their gaming revenues with the State of Arizona and local governments to support specific state and local programs. Twelve percent (12 %) of the total contribution each tribe makes annually is directed by the tribe to cities, towns and counties of the tribe’s choosing for government services benefiting the general public. The programs these “12% contributions” fund include public safety, education, and promotion of commerce and economic development.

Fort McDowell Casino

Fort McDowell Casino and Wekopa Resort

The remaining 88% of each tribe’s total contribution goes to the Arizona Benefits Fund, which is broken down into specific categories to ensure that key programs important to the people of Arizona received proper funding and which is distributed as follows:

  • $8 million or 9% of the total tribal contributions to the Arizona Benefits Fund, whichever is greater, funds the State’s regulatory and administrative expenses related to tribal gaming.
  • 2% of the total tribal contributions to the Arizona Benefits Fund supports programs for the prevention and treatment of, and education concerning, problem gambling.

The remaining tribal contributions in the Arizona Benefits Fund are disbursed as follows:

  • 56% are directed toward improving K-12 education throughout the state.
  • 28% go to fund statewide trauma and emergency services.
  • 8% go to the Arizona Wildlife Conservation Fund.
  • 8% go to the Arizona Tourism Fund for statewide tourism promotion.

In the first three quarters of 2017 (January through October), the people of Arizona have received over $26 million in contributions to education, and another $13 million to trauma and emergency services. In total, the Arizona Benefits Fund has resulted in almost a billion and a half dollars in total contributions since 2002.

Early compact talks coverage in Landry and Associates

Early compact talks coverage in Landry and Associates No. 8052 Pg. 3 July 17, 1998

The Arizona Benefits Fund is just one piece of the Tribal Gaming puzzle. The broad effects of Tribal Gaming have not only been an economic catalyst for the state, but a critical opportunity for Tribes as they work toward their ultimate goal of economic self-reliance and empowerment. In 2014, an economic impact study analyzed the impact of Tribal Gaming on Arizona’s economy. As reported by AZ Central, the study found that Tribal Gaming not only creates jobs for over 15,000 Arizonans, a majority of whom are non-native, but has sparked tens of millions of dollars investment and further economic activity through businesses that operate in and around casinos. This development has helped stabilize the larger Arizona economy for the long term, and enhanced opportunities for small, local business growth across the state.

A very important element of Tribal Gaming is the impact that it has on both the economies and infrastructure development for the Tribes themselves. Before the economic opportunities provided by Tribal Gaming, Tribes in Arizona had few options to diversify and develop their economies, relying on farming and other localized efforts. But even the biggest and most successful of those would never become large enough to overcome decades of economic and geographic isolation. Today, though that work continues, Tribal members paint a vivid picture of the vast difference between life now and before Tribal Gaming. As Tribal Elder Leona Kakar of the Ak-Chin Indian Community points out in this video, many tribal members, who once left the tribe in hopes of finding better opportunities, have actually returned home to enjoy diversified Tribal economies and benefit from new educational opportunities afforded by Tribal Gaming.

Despite the oft-changing political rhetoric, the growth of commercial gaming and online fantasy sports betting threaten Arizona’s Tribal-State Gaming Compacts and the many benefits enjoyed by all Arizonans. Today, Tribal Gaming is helping the Tribes overcome centuries of disadvantage, displacement, and limited economic opportunity. They are building thriving, self- sufficient communities that are vital to the economic health of Arizona overall. It isn’t often that we find an economic scenario that creates a win-win for all parties involved, but Tribal Gaming has proven, thus far, to be just that for the Tribes and the State of Arizona.