In 1972 Helen Johnson’s last name was actually Bryan as a result of her marriage to Russell Bryan. They were duly enrolled in the Ojibwa nation living in a small mobile home with her family of 5 on the Cass Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. It was that year when they would first receive notice from Itasca County that they were being assessed personal property taxes. It was a well-settled question that counties could not assess property taxes on land within the reservation, but it was an open question whether the county had jurisdiction to assess a tax on personal property like mobile homes. It was that year that the county made the move to assess personal property to pay for county services. By the time Helen sought assistance from the Leech Lake Reservation Legal Services Project to fight the assessments, she owed a bill of $147 that she could not afford to pay.
This seemingly minor dispute of $147 would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the resulting decision would lay the foundation for the Indian gaming industry. The case was handled all the way from this minor District Court proceeding to the US Supreme Court by a constantly revolving team of idealistic legal services attorneys. When the case finally hit the Supreme Court, it would have been very easy for the court to simply ignore the case or make a very narrow ruling, but Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. took the lead on drafting opinion with his sites set on establishing a landmark decision. Bryan v. Itasca County, 426 U.S. 373 (1976) would in fact become a landmark decision significantly limiting the ability of states to exercise “general state civil regulatory control over Indian reservations”.
Not only did this mean that Itasca County could not assess a personal property tax on Helen’s trailer, but no state could enforce their state gaming laws on Indian reservations. It was then that high-stakes bingo became legal and tribal bingo parlors started popping up all over the nation. Later cases would open up gaming on an even broader scale, based squarely on the legal foundation laid by Bryan v. Itasca County. Magically, a $147 tax debt over a little mobile home in rural Itasca County turned into a multibillion-dollar gaming industry.
The Minnesota state budget has had a little bit of its own money magic over the last few weeks. Back in November, the state budget forecast predicted a $1.1 billion deficit for the FY 2014-15 biennium. Thankfully Minnesota’s economy continues to outpace national predictions and the state spending forecast is actually lower than expected. Therefore, the final budget forecast that will be used to develop the state budget now shows a reduced deficit of only $627 million. Lawmakers still have a significant challenge in balancing the budget and meeting spending expectations raised by Gov. Dayton’s large tax proposal. Nonetheless, their job has become significantly easier with the improved forecast numbers.
The better-than-expected numbers have also had a positive impact on the state’s dedicated funds from the Legacy Amendment. All the funds will see greater than expected dollars that can be used for additional investments. For example, the Lessard/Sams Outdoor Heritage Council was told back in December that it had some $96 million available for FY 2014 that starts in July of this year. As a result, the Council recommended $91 million in projects with the remainder being held in reserve for cash flow purposes. Fortunately for the great outdoors, with the state’s economy performing better than expected it has resulted in greater sales tax receipts. Now the Outdoor Heritage fund has approximately $101 million available for next year.
Therefore, when the Lessard/Sams Outdoor Heritage Council meets next on Monday, March 18, they will have room to make several new recommendations to the Legislature for investments in our great outdoors. It would be wise of them to use a little fiscal magic to find good places to invest that leverage additional dollars on projects benefiting the state’s outdoor heritage.
*Interview with Helen Johnson, in Cass Lake, Minn. (May 25, 2007) as quoted in the Minnesota Law Review by Kevin T. Washburn 5/24/2008.