Casino turf fights under scrutiny in Capitol

The struggle for turf between casino-owning Indian tribes has become a staple of Capitol politics as rival groups seek leverage in their efforts to expand operations. The stakes are huge – the gaming tribes pay $200 million annually into one special state fund alone – and the politics are intense.

The latest round in the turf wars began on the final day for bill introductions, Feb. 22. The proposal, authored by the head of the Senate committee with authority over gaming, is aimed at a tribe's ability to establish casinos and place them where it wants. Although written broadly, Capitol insiders say the legislation targets a Fresno-area tribe's attempt to set up a casino off Highway 99 near Madera.

The bill, SB1695 by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, would effectively block an attempt by the North Fork Mono Tribe, which has lands that overlap portions of Fresno and Madera counties and which is based near the foothill community of North Fork, about 40 miles from the proposed casino site. The tribe has received a number of federal approvals regarding the use of its land and wants some 300 acres at the proposed site designated as tribal land – which would allow it to build the casino.

But the final pieces remain, including a state gaming compact that would be negotiated with the governor, as required by federal law.

Into this legal tangle steps Florez, whose bill would require tribes to be limited as to where they can place their casinos. Florez, an opponent of what is known as "casino shopping," wants to restrict the casinos to the county "where the tribe has historically carried on its tribal activities." In North Fork's case, that means the tribe would be unable to build its Madera casino if the Florez bill is approved.

David Quintana of the Tribal Business Alliance said county boundaries are artificial and don't reflect the historic boundaries of the tribes. "The boundaries were created by county governments. When you start saying that tribes need to stay within  county, that really gets far afield from where the tribes are really from. The tribes didn't draw the county lines, the white people drew those lines."

 Florez noted that there have been a number examples of tribes seeking casinos far from their home bases, and that the North Fork case brought the issue to a head

"I think we finally said it's time to put a bill in," said Florez, chair of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee. "I think we are going to have a huge debate on what ultimately is California's policy on urban gaming. Things get pushed out of the Legislature with very little long-term policy discussion."

The tribe hopes to construct a 500,000-square-foot casino just west of Highway 99 in Madera, a move opposed by other area casino-operating tribes, who say the huge facility would give the North Fork tribe an unfair advantage. "The question is whether this sets a precedent for other tribes for them to follow suit," Florez said at a public hearing on March 13 in Madera. "Every tribe I know would like to move to a better location."

The hearing was jammed with hundreds of residents.

The tribe says the land is properly part of its heritage and contends that it has demonstrated that ancestral connection to federal officials and others. "It's really a shame when we have our neighboring tribes and close relatives of ours that don't want us to follow the process and achieve what they've been able to achieve," Elaine Fink, a vice chair of the North Fork Tribe, said at the same hearing. She was referring to two other area tribes that have casinos: the Table Mountain and Chuckchansi tribes.

Some have raised concerns about the environmental and cultural impacts of the proposed casino. "Its product will be gambling addicts, alcoholics, drug addicts, broken homes," said Chowchilla resident David Rogers, according to local ABC television affiliate Channel 30, which covered the hearing.

The Florez bill does not specifically identify the North Fork tribe, although he is a well-known critic of the casino. Florez has been opposed to tribes establishing casinos far from their ancestral lands. One major case involved a joint attempt by the Los Coyotes tribe and the Big Lagoon tribe to establish a casino in the desert town of Barstow, which is 400 miles from Big Lagoon's lands and some 150 miles from Los Coyotes'.

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