If you think the battle of the biennial budget earlier this year was contentious, think again. If you think next year’s race for governor will be a bruising blitzkreig, forget it. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

If the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has its way, its recent proposal for streamlining tribal recognition rules could grease the skids for federal approval of dozens of new Indian tribes clamoring for unique rights. Perhaps foremost among those rights to be considered are tax-free enterprise zones and the ownership and management of casino gambling operations — the latter a subject near and dear to Nutmeggers.

From the looks of it, the BIA was formulating the proposal away from prying eyes, notwithstanding its insistence in a news release that it wants a process that is “fair, efficient and transparent” going forward. North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas Mullane II, whose town sits next door to both of Connecticut’s casinos, has called the proposed changes “a major relaxing” of standards now in place. And he has described the process so far as anything but “transparent.”

“For the last two or three years, we have submitted FOI requests for what’s going on with federal recognition, and have received nothing,” Mullane told The Day newspaper last month. “Now, we know.”

In Connecticut, the BIA’s proposal has a special relevance. Federal recognition of the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans permitted the tribes to open Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, the first full-scale casinos in New England and among the largest in North America.

And the BIA’s relaxation of recognition standards will no doubt strike a chord with a public nervous about the recent statewide expansion of gambling in the form of Keno, a highly addictive video numbers game that essentially offers a new lottery every five minutes and is a favorite of low-income gamblers.

Not only should the residents of North Stonington, where the Eastern Pequots are headquartered, be nervous, but Indian watchers in the Northwest Corner will be viewing with a keen eye as well. Both the Easterns and the Kent-based Schaghticokes were granted preliminary recognition in 2002 and 2004 respectively, only to see the Department of the Interior buckle under intense political pressure and reverse the recognitions in 2005. Federal recognition of the two tribes was also opposed by then-state Attorney General and current U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Under the new proposal, the BIA will review a petitioning tribe’s “community and political authority” starting only with the year 1934 “and eliminate the requirement that an external entity identify the group as Indian since 1900,” according to the BIA news release. This moving of the goalposts augurs well for a Schaghticoke reapplication. For in rejecting it eight years ago, the BIA noted that “one-third of the tribe’s membership are from a family that has not been involved with the group since at least the early 1900s.’‘

But you’d have to ask yourself whether the federal government makes its determinations based on criteria or on politics. As Brett D. Fromson revealed in his outstanding investigative tome, Hitting The Jackpot: The Inside Story of the Richest Indian Tribe in History, the Mashantuckets were nearly extinct as a tribe when they filed a federal lawsuit claiming ownership of hundreds of acres of land in eastern Connecticut. As part of the settlement, Congress itself recognized the tribe in 1983, avoiding the federal recognition process and paving the way for what would become the second largest casino in the U.S.

So why is the BIA coming forward with such a proposal at this time? According to its news release, the move is “part of President Obama’s commitment to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship with Native Americans and Alaska Natives.” In other words, some tribes are getting rich and others are not. Granting federal recognition to more tribes (or “nations”) could encourage more entrepreneurship, which as Obama famously told Joe the Plumber, might “spread the wealth around.”

Or perhaps the Obama administration is under quiet pressure from cash-strapped governors and lawmakers who see more casinos as money fountains that will bail the states out after years of reckless spending and sweetheart labor deals. But not here.

“All of Connecticut should be worried,” North Stonington’s Mullane told The Courant.

And when will the state’s congressional delegates weigh in on these proposed new standards? Alas, for once in his life, Blumenthal is nowhere to be found.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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