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Casino vote put on hold until 2008

A campaign to put an off-reservation casino on the state ballot for November has officially called it quits for now but local backers of a non-tribal casino in Oregon say they plan to be back in 2008.

The proposal, backed by two Lake Oswego men and an anonymous troupe of investors, would have asked voters to approve a private casino at the former Multnomah Kennel Club in Wood Village. At 175,000 square feet, the planned gaming center was larger than the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, now the fourth largest casino in the nation.

Oregon tribes have fought two ballot measures tied to the plan through every bureaucratic step. Six months of legal wrangling finally came to an end with a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court in favor of the measures in early June. But with just more than 100,000 signatures needed by July 7, backers said the clock had run out for a 2006 election. The announcement came on Monday, the same day the Secretary of State's Office gave the green light for signature gathering.

Bruce Studer, a Lake Oswego investor at the helm of Oregon Gaming and Entertainment, formed the pro-casino agency with attorney Matt Rossman, also of Lake Oswego, a little more than a year ago.

Studer said he was disappointed in the delay but intends to file the same measures for the 2008 general election soon. The measures - one that sites the casino in Wood Village and another that amends the state constitution's ban on casinos - cleared their last round of appeals at the Supreme Court level. The constitutional amendment will require a vote in a general election.

'We've been working at this for … over three and a half years now and it's just going to build momentum but I'm disappointed we can't get to the voters before 2008,' Studer said.

For some Oregon tribes, news of a two-year delay is good. Coquille, Siletz, Grand Ronde and Klamath tribes mounted repeated challenges to the ballot measures and, in early June, exhausted their last appeal option with the Supreme Court. At least two of those tribes have made plays for off-reservation casinos and failed.

Justin Martin, spokesman and lobbyist for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, said tribes are concerned a private casino will open a debate about which tribes can site casinos in urban areas, a Pandora's box that's historically been locked tight.

'It gets at the root of the problem in changing this policy. How do elected officials get to decide which tribes go where? It really creates a ton of ambiguity.'

Forces both for and against the casino threw two high-profile Oregon attorneys into the ring for these last months of fighting. Eli Stutsman, who has defended Oregon's Death with Dignity Act in numerous legal challenges, represented casino proponents. Stutsman faced off against Charles Hinkle from Stoel Rives, best known for his role as legal counsel to The Oregonian.

Studer said public unease about expansion in the gaming industry was not a factor in the decision to halt the campaign. The proposal has faced an uphill battle in east Multnomah County, where officials there have worried about its impacts on infrastructure and public safety. Backers have also weathered media criticism about investor anonymity, including an Oregonian editorial telling voters not to sign their petitions until investor information was disclosed.

Studer said Oregon Gaming and Entertainment plans to disclose investors later this year but no firm date for the announcement has been set. He said some deals with investors are not final and confidentiality agreements involving others must be waived.

Studer said he thought the additional two years would only work in favor of the campaign.

'We're trying to do something that most people didn't think there was a possibility of doing even a couple months ago so we have broken significant historical ground,' he said. 'To be able to have more conversations and have more people hear what we want to do and what the ground looks like just puts us in a better position for '08.'

Oregon Gaming and Entertainment has sweetened the pot for voters by directing 25 percent of casino revenue - estimated at $800 million - to state programs, chiefly education. They caution a casino planned by the Cowlitz Tribe in La Center, Wash., could draw that money if Oregonians don't approve a casino in the Metro area.

Tribal casinos have historically drained revenue from nearby video lottery games owned by the state, according to Oregon Lottery officials. Video lottery contributes $400 million to the state budget each year and is the state's second largest revenue generator. Portland contributes 53 percent of that money and the lottery is currently studying what effect a Portland casino could have on that revenue stream.

Craig Dorsay, attorney for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, said any new casino would likely shift that revenue stream but added tribes spend their earnings locally, not out of state, and often spend on social services. He said until Oregon Gaming and Entertainment discloses its backers and can prove it won't send revenue elsewhere, its spokesmen shouldn't point at tribes for siphoning those dollars.

'Until they tell me they don't have Las Vegas interests or foreign interests, I don't think they get to say that,' he said.