Setting the Record Straight on Indian Taxation in Washington

Late this week, Washington State Republicans introduced three bills, seeking to balance the state's budget on the backs of Washington's 29 tribal governments. A legal and economic reality check is in order. Those bills are:

HB 2044 Concerning equity and fairness through the creation and regulation of electronic scratch ticket machines for nontribal gambling establishments.

HB 2045 Providing for fairness, equity, and transparency of tax preferences for federally recognized Indian tribes.

HB 2046 Concerning legislative involvement with compacts and compact amendments.

In support of those bills, Republican House members argue for "closing tribal tax loopholes." Here are some of the facts the Republicans either (a) do not understand, (b) do not care to understand, or (c) understand but do not care to help the public understand.

1. State taxation of Indian gaming revenues has been per se barred by Congress via the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Period. Still, local Republicans aspire to require "the non-taxpaying tribal mega casinos to pay a tax on the profits they make from the exclusive games they operate." Until they can figure out a way to do that (they can't), they hope to allow the largest expansion of gaming in the state's history, over-promising new state tax revenues. Indeed, according to a commercial gaming industry expert, the proposal "would cut into sales tax revenues in other segments of the state economy."

2. Governments don't tax other governments. Instead, governments -- be they state, local or tribal -- work with each other to devise accords that reflect the needs of each government in relation to the services they provide the public. That is why, according to one study, “[n]early every state that has Indian lands within its borders has reached some type of tax agreement with the tribes” -- including Washington.

3. State and local governments are already adequately compensated for the services they provide to tribal members. Under the economics of “tax exporting,” it is frequently tribal governments – not state or local governments –- who bear a disproportionate financial burden associated with the services they provide.

4. Washington State cannot legally enforce its fuel and tobacco excise tax regime on Indian reservations, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. Washington v. Confederated Tribes of Colville Indian Reservation, 447 U.S. 134, 162 (1980); Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Potawatomi Tribe, 498 U.S. 505, 514 (1991). Therefore, heeding advice from the High Court, the state has entered into fuel and tobacco tax compacts with tribes, in part so it can collect something from reservation-based fuel and tobacco sales, instead of engaging zero-sum litigation and enforcement activities.

5. Ten years ago, researchers at the Evergreen State College opined that Washington tribal governments contributed an estimated $140 million annually to the state and local tax structure. Today tribal tax contributions to the state are likely far greater, due in large part to the diversification of Washington tribal economies beyond gaming and tobacco commerce. Tribes are already contributing their so-called fair share of taxes.

One can only hope that the facts will enter the legislative discourse about HB 2044, 2045 and 2046.

Gabriel "Gabe" Galanda is a partner at Galanda Broadman PLLC, of Seattle, an American Indian majority-owned law firm. He is an enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Covelo, California. Gabe co-authored "Taxing Times in Native America," Washington State Bar News, January 2011. He can be reached at 206.691.3631 or, or via