State’s first off-reservation tribal casino poised for OK

Despite objections of a dozen Indian tribes operating casinos across California, the Senate is expected to approve legislation this week allowing the North Fork Rancheria Band of Mono Indians to build a hotel casino complex near Madera – the first off-reservation tribal casino authorized in the state.


North Fork says its 2,000-slot casino and 200-room hotel will jumpstart the economic livelihood of its 1,900-member tribe and buoy the area’s depressed rural economy.


“Ratification of our compact is going to bring jobs to the area and build up the economy,” Elaine Bethel Fink, chairwoman of the North Fork tribe, told Capitol Weekly.


“The project helps the tribe, of course, but it also helps people who want both construction jobs and permanent jobs with full benefits once the project is completed.”


North Fork would become the 63rd of California’s 109 federally recognized tribes to enter the casino business.


California Indian gaming generated an estimated $6.9 billion in 2011, according to the annual Casino City Indian Gaming Industry Report, released in March. Indian gaming revenues in California, the largest of any state, peaked at $7.3 billion in 2008.


Opponents, particularly tribes already operating casinos, say North Fork is “reservation-shopping” by being able to build its casino complex just off Highway 99, 36 miles from their secluded rancheria near Yosemite.


Another worry of tribal casino owners is that approval of North Fork’s 20-year compact will cut into their profit by making it easier for potential customers to instead gamble at casinos built closer to urban areas.


“The fact that every local tribe stands united in opposition to this project is evidence that the approval of the North Fork compact is not a sound solution,” Mark Macarro, tribal chair of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, told lawmakers before the compact reached the Senate floor.


“These reservation-shopping schemes are insidious and should not be condoned.”


There’s some evidence to support the opposition argument about North Fork being just the beginning.


The Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe of the Enterprise Rancheria has been granted 40 acres of non-reservation land in Yuba County by the federal government on which they can build a casino.


Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a compact with the Enterprise Rancheria but it hasn’t been brought to the Legislature for ratification.


The mammoth Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln, owned by the United Auburn Indian Community, and the Colusa Casino Resort, owned by the Cachil Dehe Band of Wintun Indians, view Enterprise as a competitive threat. They’ve sued to block the project.


Both groups also oppose North Fork’s compact.


That opposition by the state’s politically powerful casino-owning tribes, which also includes the Morongo and Pala Bands of Mission Indians in Southern California, has harried legislative approval for North Fork, the final step needed before breaking ground.


On the first try in the Assembly, the compact – AB 277 by Assemblyman Isadore Hall, a Los Angeles Democrat – fell three votes short of it’s needed 41.     Twenty-nine of Hall’s colleagues refused to vote. A second attempt succeeded in barely securing the 41 votes necessary for passage.


A vote on the compact in the Senate has been repeatedly postponed since the Assembly’s grudging approval more than six weeks ago.


Approval of the compact would cap a laborious process begun by North Fork in 2004 under the Bush Administration.


Ultimately, after an exhaustive environmental review, North Fork convinced the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs that issues involving who held title to tribal property prevented the tribe from building a casino on its rancheria in the foothills near Yosemite.


The appropriate site, the tribe successfully argued, was 305 acres just off Highway 99 purchased for the tribe by Station Casinos, a Summerlin Nevada gaming company that will operate North Fork’s casino.


Saying the Madera-Fresno area could sustain more than one tribal casino, the Bureau of Indian Affairs gave North Fork it’s final OK last year.


Gov. Brown said the “exceptional circumstances” involved caused him to agree with the federal government’s assessment.


Brown then inked a compact with North Fork in which the tribe agreed to pay up to 15 percent of its revenue to other non-gaming tribes as well as the city and county of Madera.


Annual payments to the county are $4 million. The City of Madera would get $825,000 each year under the compact.


In another first, the North Fork compact is linked to a compact with the 640-member Wiyot Tribe, whose reservation is 16 miles south of Eureka on Humboldt Bay.


The North Coast tribe was eager to improve its economic situation through gambling but the state worred about the potential environmental damage caused by a casino abutting the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.


Nor was the Wiyot particularly eager to tear up their pristine tribal lands. The North Fork compact offered a solution.


In return for Wiyot agreeing not to build a casino on its lands, North Fork guarantees the tribe up to 3.5 percent of North Fork’s future revenues.


That’s roughly $4 million to $5 million annually, the Wiyot estimate – almost four times what the tribe currently receives from the payments tribes with casinos make to tribes that don’t.


According to the Wiyot, the additional money will “provide education, health care and economic development for our tribal members, help us revitalize and teach our native language as well as allow us to continue the environmental protection and (improvement of) the ancestral lands we so cherish.”


One of North Fork’s most virulent opponents is the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, owners of the nearest casino to North Fork’s proposed location.


The Chukchansi say North Fork’s new casino will put them and their 1,800-slots, 400-room Gold Resort and Casino off Highway 41 out of business.


“The Chukchansi Tribe is steadfast against the illegal, off-reservation casino proposed by the Mono Tribe,” said Chukchansi Tribal Council Chairwoman Nancy Ayala in a June 13 statement.


“The North Fork casino should not be built in Madera, off the Mono Rancheria. Our tribe does not support this casino now nor will we support it in the future. We will remain actively engaged, together with our sister tribes, in strong opposition.”


In its compact, North Fork agreed to make payments of up to $3 million annually to Chukchansi through June 2020 to ease the economic impact of North Fork’s new casino. North Fork also agreed not to open its hotel until after July 2018.


Those commitments were contingent on Chukchansi not challenging North Fork’s casino project.


Chukchansi filed a lawsuit last year saying North Fork’s project violated the state environmental quality act. As a result, North Fork is under no obligation to pay anything to Chukchansi, which is having difficulty paying its existing debts.


While it doesn’t surface in public testimony, opposing tribes also worry that when their compacts face re-negotiation whoever the governor is will insist they pay a larger share of their gambling profits to the state – just as North Fork agreed to do in it’s compact.


“It’s been mentioned to us that (the other tribes) are worried we’re giving too much away,” Bethel Fink says. “We think Indian gaming has proven to be a good revenue source.”

Ed’s Note: Changes time element in lede to show floor vote now expected for Thursday. 



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