A one-casino-per-tribe policy in Oregon faces a tough test as the Coquille Indian Tribe pursues a Medford gaming operation.

A one-casino-per-tribe policy in Oregon faces a tough test as the Coquille Indian Tribe pursues a Medford gaming operation.

Gov. John Kitzhaber and the tribe have been at odds over a so-called gentleman's agreement limiting each of the nine tribes in the state to just one casino.

The tribe proposes a video-gaming operation at the Roxy Ann Lanes bowling alley and the former Kim's Restaurant along South Pacific Highway. The tribe also agreed to lease Bear Creek Golf Course, adjacent to the two buildings.

"We are deliberately avoiding using the word casino to describe this gaming facility," said Ray Doering, spokesman for the Coquille.

In the world of tribal gaming operations, the difference between a casino and a video-gaming operation could become a crucial part of a debate over increasing the level of gambling in the state. However, in previous Coquille discussions, tribal leaders have referred to the proposed operation as a casino.

Currently in Oregon there are nine federally recognized Class III casinos, which allow such games as craps, roulette, blackjack, other table games and video gaming.

The Coquille propose a more modest Class II gaming operation in Medford, which would feature video games that have some differences but resemble the type of machines found in casinos.

There are no Class II facilities in the state.

Over the years, federally required compacts between the state and the tribes have been signed, which in some cases included a five-year agreement not to establish any new Class III casinos.

The most recent compact between the state of Oregon and the Coquille, executed on Dec. 6, 2000, specifically recognizes the ability to operate the kind of gaming operation proposed in Medford.

"Nothing in this compact shall be deemed to affect the operation by the tribe of any Class II gaming as defined in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act," the compact reads.

The compact also makes it clear that the state doesn't have any regulatory authority over Class II gaming conducted by the tribe.

In the compact, the tribe agreed to not operate another Class III facility for a period of five years, ending in 2005.

For the most part, the one-tribe, one-casino idea was good only for five years with all tribes, though it was also part of a Kitzhaber policy statement in 1997 and an idea the governor still endorses.

"It was something this governor in his first administration wanted to pursue," said Doering. "He wanted the tribes to limit themselves to one casino."

The tribe, however, didn't sign any agreements to that policy, Doering said.

Even though the Coquille tribe doesn't believe the governor's one-casino policy applies to the Medford proposal, Doering said the tribe still is largely following the spirit of the 2000 compact, which makes provisions allowing Class II gaming operations.

Doering said the requirements for the establishment of a Class II gaming operation do not involve the same high level of federal regulatory hoops as a Class III facility and don't require a compact with the state.

"We just felt it worked better as Class II," he said. "It is less of an investment."

Kitzhaber sent a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs on May 6 opposing the Coquille's proposal to expand into Medford.

Opening a Class II gaming facility in Medford would open the doors to a possible conversion to a Class III casino, Kitzhaber wrote.

"It is important to note that the governor understands the distinction between Class III and Class II gaming, and that the state has no regulatory role in Class II gaming," Kitzhaber's letter states. "The state also understands that the restrictions in the compacts only apply to Class III gaming."

Susan Ferris, spokeswoman for the Cow Creek of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, said her tribe signed the first compact with the state to operate a Class III casino on Nov. 20, 1992. The Cow Creek operate Seven Feathers Casino Resort in Canyonville and oppose the Coquille's proposal in Medford.

Ferris said the Cow Creek was one of three tribes that signed compacts restricting them to one Class III facility without any time limit. The other tribes are the Warm Springs and Grand Ronde.

The remaining tribes signed off on language in their compacts that were similar to the Coquille, with a five-year time limit on Class III casinos, she said.

Ferris said she felt that relying solely on the governor's policy statement to bolster the contention of a one-casino-per-tribe agreement might be legally difficult.

However, she said, it could be used to bolster the idea that the state has historically shown an unwillingness to expand casino gaming beyond what is now offered, though there is no federal limit on the number of casinos that could be operated by a tribe.

She said that the technology behind video gaming has improved markedly in recent years, blurring the distinction between different types of gaming facilities.

"The great difference between Class II and Class III gaming has been largely erased," she said. "How the regulatory agencies are going to cope with the advancement in technology — that's something we're not sure about."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.