Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. agreed Tuesday to seek a legal interpretation of the federal law covering Indian gambling to determine if the nation's governors can veto proposals to establish tribal casinos off reservations--possibly in the heart of major cities.
Lujan asked the Interior Department's solicitor's office to review a key provision of the law after a hastily called meeting with all four members of Nevada's congressional delegation.
The Nevada officials requested the meeting in the wake of a prediction by Lujan last week that "10 years from now Indian tribes will have gaming in every major city in the country."
The prediction, delivered in a Las Vegas speech, stunned the Nevada gambling Establishment, which is still trying to come to grips with the proliferation of gambling halls on reservations.
At issue is the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which seemingly gives the states a veto power over bids by Indians to annex land for casinos. The law says such expansions can be approved "only if the governor of the state in which the gaming act is to be conducted concurs."
Lujan, however, said he believed he could allow such expansions over the objection of a governor.
"There couldn't be anything clearer," said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) after Tuesday's hourlong meeting in Washington. "I didn't know what law he was talking about."
Indian tribes in several states have sought land off their reservations so their gambling enterprises can be closer to population centers. At the same time, some cities, such as Kansas City, Kan., have invited casino proposals by tribes.
Since his comments caused a furor in Nevada, Lujan has tried to downplay his prediction that Indian gambling halls will soon appear in most urban centers. On Tuesday, he said he was referring merely to bingo halls, not full casinos.
"He may have exaggerated a little bit," one Interior Department spokesman said. "He was trying to get across the explosion of Indian gaming."
The Washington meeting was the second this week in which Nevada interests have expressed concern over Lujan's remarks.
Vice President Dan Quayle met with casino executives in Las Vegas on Monday and reassured them that the federal government was only seeking to give Indians "a level playing field" in gambling.
But Lujan's statements "clearly got the attention of people here," said Mike Sloan, a vice president of the Circus Circus casino.