Oregon Governor, Tina Kotek, stands in front of a background of softly blurred trees.
Oregon Governor, Tina Kotek, stands in front of a background of softly blurred trees.

Smoke Signals

New Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek officially notified the chairs of the nine federally recognized tribes in the state that she does not support an expansion of gaming and will maintain the status quo during her term in office.

As first reported by Smoke Signals before the November 2022 general election, Kotek reiterated that she will maintain the policies of former governors John Kitzhaber and Kate Brown regarding Tribal gaming in Oregon.

“Throughout my legislative career, during my campaign for office and since the start of administration, I have been clear that I do not favor an expansion of gaming,” Kotek wrote on Thursday, April 13, adding she will stick with the one gaming facility per Tribe on Reservation land policy. “This helps all of us avoid confusion, use of resources, and advocacy for and against changing my stance in favor of one gaming facility per Tribe on Reservation land.”

Kotek’s letter potentially affects the future of two proposals to expand tribal gaming in Oregon.

The Coquille Tribe has applied to the Department of the Interior to have land in Medford taken into trust for gaming purposes and the Siletz Tribe has proposed opening a second casino in north Salem. The Siletz Tribe already operates Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City.

Should either of the two proposals be approved by the Department of the Interior, they would still need the OK from Oregon’s governor before they could proceed.

“Gov. Kotek has been consistent throughout her tenure as a representative, as speaker of the House and now as Oregon’s governor,” said Grand Ronde Tribal lobbyist Justin Martin. “It should come as no surprise that her position and policies around gambling have not changed. Gov. Kotek has been very clear with her policies on off-Reservation gaming and also clear that she does not want to see expansion of gambling as a whole within the state.”

Ironically, it was the Siletz Tribe attempting to obtain approval for a Salem casino decades ago that created the Oregon governor hurdle. The Siletz Tribe's plans had been approved by the George H.W. Bush administration, but was hamstrung by a 1997 U.S. Court of Appeals decision upholding a governor's right to veto off-Reservation casino construction.

Then-Gov. Barbara Roberts overruled the federal decision and struck a deal with the Siletz Tribe, laying groundwork for Chinook Winds.

The Siletz Tribe filed an application with the Department of the Interior to build an 180,800-square-foot casino with 2,000 gaming devices and 45 table games north of downtown Salem in April 2020.

During a January 2022 Bureau of Indian Affairs virtual public hearing on the Siletz proposal, 21 of the 28 speakers were Grand Ronde tribal members or employees who unanimously spoke in opposition to the idea of allowing the Siletz Tribe to leapfrog over Spirit Mountain Casino and build a second casino closer to Salem.

In 2017, the Siletz Tribe proposed building a second casino at the 20-acre site off Interstate 5 and splitting the proceeds with the state of Oregon and eight other federally recognized tribes in Oregon. The Grand Ronde Tribe objected to that proposal as well.

The Salem market has become more important to Grand Ronde’s Spirit Mountain Casino following the Cowlitz Tribe opening Ilani Casino approximately 17 miles north of the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area in April 2017.

Should the long-standing state policy end, the Grand Ronde Tribe also is poised to seek permission to build a second casino at the former Multnomah Greyhound Park site in Wood Village just east of Portland. The tribe purchased the property in December 2015 and is currently working to have it taken into trust.

Kotek’s letter also was sent to Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.

“Her transparency and communication with Oregon’s sovereign Tribes has been great throughout her time in the Oregon Legislature and we expect that to continue,” Martin said. “As governments, both the state and the Tribes have utilized gambling as a means to an end to be able to provide for their citizens, funding education, economic development, water, parks and wildlife, health, housing and veterans programs.

“The last thing Oregon needs is an arms race for more and more gambling, and Tribes spending precious resources that fund vital governmental programs. Attempting to leave rural Oregon to pursue long-shot projects and locations in our most populated cities like Portland, Salem, Bend, Eugene and Medford just doesn’t make much sense.”

Lead image: Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek (photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Education)

Dean Rhodes is the editor of the Grand Ronde tribal newspaper Smoke Signals.