When E. Sequoyah Simermeyer was appointed as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) in July 2019, he had no way of knowing the historic highs and lows that Indian gaming would experience over the next three-plus years. Thankfully, now that the lows of the Covid pandemic have been replaced by record-setting highs, Simermeyer and the NIGC will look to shepherd the next evolution of this invaluable sector. He spoke with GGB Managing Editor Jess Marquez at the Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention in March.
GGB: I wanted to start with the updates to the consultation series that was initiated back in 2021, as many of these efforts have come to conclusion in recent months. Could you give a summation of those efforts and the areas of policy that were affected?
Simermeyer: We took a broad look at a number of different topics we thought would help improve flexibilities in our regulations, help us to be more responsive to trends we’re seeing, and more modern in some ways. Then we had a number of topics that we looked at that were more open-ended to help us to find more specific conversations in the future. But we reported that some of them resulted in policy changes, particularly with our strategic plan for the agency moving through 2026. It also resulted in some improvements in our consultation policy with tribes, which we last looked at in 2013. There are a number of these topics that resulted in rulemakings, particularly this fall, and we’re still going through that process.
You touched on key employees and primary management officials—I understand that’s a very big topic of discussion. Could you talk about that process and some of the considerations that went into it?
These are our regulations at 25 CFR parts 502, 556, and 558. These regulations we are looking at for a few different reasons, but one of the primary reasons is to be more compliant with the FBI standards for criminal history, record retention and management. Part of that is also an opportunity to help to provide more flexibility and more local-level decision-making about how their background and licensing programs are operated. So we’re looking at definitions of those individuals. We’re looking at trying to propose removing some of the thresholds for salary requirements for who is and isn’t background-eligible. From our perspective, we think it’s an opportunity to help modernize, but also to be compliant.
Cybersecurity has also been a big area of concern for the tribal sector. From a regulatory perspective, have there been any policy updates, and what is the commission’s stance on the issue as it is right now?
During the pandemic, we saw an uptick in the sophistication of the types of ransomware attacks. These attacks on different tribal communities have had a really significant impact, from leadership to operations to the regulatory body within our regulations. A number of years ago, the commission moved toward a system where environmental, public health and safety standards were assessed and managed at the local level. The NIGC still plays a role in facilitating that and monitoring it, but it’s an opportunity to look at some of those security issues at the most local level. What we’ve been working hard with our technology division to do is to raise awareness about the issue. Like all other industries who’ve been dealing with this in recent years, we think there’s a lot of opportunity to promote best practices.
We’ve looked at our regulations to see if there is anything that would hinder adopting strong cybersecurity practices. We’ve held a number of training sessions to help tribes identify how they might set goals and standards for their communities. We’ve also implemented and continue to implement an IT vulnerability assessment program that provides technical assistance and training to help elevate the conversation and begin a base level of discussion within a regulatory body. One other thing we’ve done too is create a network with other subject matter experts in the federal family, from CISA to DHS to the Secret Service.
Tribal revenues from 2022 may surpass $40 billion, which would represent a new record. What do you attribute that success to, and from a regulatory perspective, what are some of the considerations that tribal operators should keep in mind with this level of growth?
Well, it’s too early for us to say at this point, because our calculation is based on the end fiscal year, which changes for each tribe. So we anticipate knowing by mid-summer. I know we looked at this issue last year where there was a record high in the industry, $39 billion in gross gaming revenue. We saw that tribes, particularly during the pandemic, had worked hard to reinvest into their communities and to find sustainable goals that would help them to continue, as many tribes are now still continuing to move out of the pandemic. So it’s too early to tell at this point.
Indian gaming is moving into new markets, including internationally and even in some of the bigger commercial markets such as Las Vegas. What is unique about Indian gaming in a crowded market, and what does it bring to the table?
We know that the current regulatory framework for Indian gaming is about to be 35 years old dating to the enactment of IGRA. So there’s a long history there of that regulatory system being developed. It’s unique in that there’s a multi-jurisdictional system of regulation. And so in many ways Indian gaming is a very heavily regulated industry. It’s also an industry that has very specific policy outcomes and goals for the community, as far as the use of revenues. I think those are perspectives as government enterprises that can go beyond Indian gaming and that history.