News

Off-reservation gambling takes center stage in Capitol fight

Gov. Schwarzenegger has angered Legislative Democrats, Republicans and the
Department of the Interior by negotiating gaming compacts with Indian tribes
to run casinos off reservation land. But with rumors in the Capitol that
another major compact deal is imminent, Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter,
chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, is trying to
stop the new compact before it is introduced.

The new gaming deal with the North Fork tribe in Madera County has some
powerful proponents-including Las Vegas gaming interests. Among them is
Station Casinos, a Nevada gaming company that has a deal to manage the North
Fork tribe’s casino, if it is ever built. Station’s lobbyist, Darius
Anderson, is personal friends with Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Susan
Kennedy. The two vacation in Italy together, and Anderson was the best man
at Kennedy’s commitment ceremony.

The proposal also has an impressive list of opponents, ranging from U.S.
Senators to Democratic and Republican legislators to the Secretary of the
Interior.

Florez’s measure, SR 20, would prohibit the Senate from taking up any
compact with a tribe that does not already have federally recognized lands
approved for gaming by the federal government.

The measure is aimed at halting the off-reservation casino the governor is
rumored to be negotiating with the North Fork tribe to build a 2,000-machine
casino and 200-room hotel, just off Highway 99 near the city of Madera.

Last year, Florez introduced a bill, SB 1013, that would have required a
local referendum on any off-reservation gaming compact. That measure has
stalled in the Legislature, and been moved to the inactive file.

But Florez said there is a greater policy issue at stake-stemming the growth
of gaming off Indian lands across California.

“He sees it as a revenue source, just like any other commercial venture,”
said Florez. “I’ve been consistent in saying I don’t care what the deal is,
we want to see that the tribe has land in trust before we ratify a compact.
We’re trying to tame the playroom for all of the lobbyists involved in
this.”

“The larger interests here are Las Vegas entities who want to get a foothold
[in California],” said Florez. “That concerns me.”

The governor’s office said they will not comment on on-going negotiations on
specific compacts, but the proposed North Fork deal has been widely
reported.
Sen. Jim Battin, R-La Quinta, an opponent of off-reservation gaming, said he
had heard the administration was going to unveil the compact last week, but
pulled back.

Among those calling on the governor to hold off on new off-reservation
gaming deals is Interior Secretary Gale Norton. In May, the department
rejected an off-reservation compact from the Warm Springs tribe in Oregon.

In a letter explaining their decision to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, deputy
secretary James Cason wrote: “Only after the tribes have acquired the (land)
into trust will the department consider the terms and conditions of a timely
submitted compact.”

Days before the letter, Gov. Schwarzenegger issued a proclamation of his
own, outlining the conditions under which he would enter into agreements
with tribes to allow them to run casinos off reservation land.

Among the criteria, the governor said, the land could not be in an
“urbanized area,” the “local juristiction” of the proposed casino must
support the project and the tribe must “demonstrate that the affected local
community supports the project.”

But critics of the governor’s gaming expansion plans say those criteria are
nebulous and malleable. The North Fork underscores some of the debate over
the governor’s proclamation.

In August, Madera County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to support the North
Fork tribe’s gaming proposal, which would include a 2,000 machine casino and
a 200-room hotel. But opponents of the plan are circulating a poll that
shows 60 percent of voters in Madera oppose the proposal, and 68 percent of
Fresno voters are opposed. Proponents say they have their own surveys
showing local support for the casino.

“He was creative in setting the criteria,” said Battin of the governor’s
proclamation. “But off-reservation gaming goings against the spirit of (the
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) and the spirit of Prop. 5 and Prop. 1A. When
Californians voted to allow tribal gaming, the deal was that it would only
be on tribal land.”

But Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto said the governor has a very
well-defined set of criteria for any off-reservation compact. And, he said,
the administration has “inherently” more leverage when negotiating with a
tribe that does not have federally-approved gaming land.

In September, Schwarzenegger announced a new pair of compacts that would
allow the Big Lagoon Rancheria tribe from Humboldt County and the Los
Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians to run two casinos in Barstow,
on the road between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Sollitto said those compacts
were negotiated in part because Big Lagoon agreed not to build on
environmentally sensitive land, and to settle a lawsuit the tribe had
against the state restricting development on their land.

The Big Lagoon tribe had run into environmental opposition to a casino on
their land because it borders a state ecological preserve. In his
announcement of the deal, the governor hailed the compacts as “a creative
solution for avoiding the construction of a casino on California’s coast and
alongside a state ecological preserve.”

The compacts have run into opposition from Democrats and Republicans alike
in the Legislature, and are said to have only an outside chance at being
approved.

Unlike the Big Lagoon and Los Coyotes deals, the proposed North Fork gaming
site is only about 40 miles from the tribe’s reservation. But it is located
on a prime piece of real estate, right along Highway 99 near the city of
Madera.

Among those opposed to the North Fork deal is the Picayune Rancheria of the
Chukchansi Indians, which runs a casino in nearby Oroville.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: