California voters have generally supported Indian gaming, which has served, among other things, as an economic lifeline for Native Americans living in poverty. But what happens when a tribe can't reasonably put a casino on its reservation? Should tribes in remote or environmentally sensitive areas be allowed to develop casinos off their reservations? That question is at the heart of Proposition 48 on the November ballot. But like many debates over Indian gaming, the issue is much more nuanced than the ballot measure would suggest.
Proposition 48 asks voters to ratify or overturn the compact between the state and the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, an agreement that would allow the tribe to build a 2,000-slot machine casino on newly acquired land near Madera, about 38 miles away from its reservation in the Sierra foothills. A “yes” vote would uphold the compact, which was negotiated by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by the Legislature. A “no” vote would reject it and require the governor to negotiate a new pact with the tribe.
The Times urges a “yes” vote.
Before voters consider the merits of Proposition 48, they should know this: The measure has become a fight between the tribes that have casinos and the tribes that want them (with established gambling interests lining up on various sides of the proposal). The measure wouldn't even be on the ballot if casino-owning tribes in the Central Valley and their financial backers hadn't bankrolled the effort to collect signatures to qualify the referendum; they're hoping for a “no” vote to stop the project, and they've so far raised $6.7 million toward that end. The “yes” campaign has raised less than $400,000.
Indian gambling in California generates an estimated $7 billion a year. Of course, tribes with casinos want to protect their market share. But to put a referendum on the ballot hoping for a “no” vote is cynical, an unfair attempt to block a competing tribe that has followed the rules, worked with the community and spent a decade getting approvals. We're not wildly enthusiastic about off-reservation casinos, but in this case voters should let the project go forward by voting “yes.”
Initially, the North Fork tribe sought to develop a casino on its small settlement in the Sierra National Forest, but it couldn't generate interest from the gaming industry because the land was environmentally sensitive and hard to reach by car. However, under federal law, the tribe may ask the Department of the Interior to approve the acquisition of non-reservation land for gaming if the casino would be in the best interest of the tribe, not detrimental to the surrounding community and has the support of the state's governor. It helps if the tribe can show a historic connection to the land.
The North Fork worked with Madera officials to find land, and filed an application in 2004 to put the land in trust. In 2011, the Interior Department approved the request. Brown concurred and signed a compact with the tribe in 2012. In the meantime, the governor negotiated an agreement with the Wiyot tribe, which agreed not to build a casino on its environmentally sensitive land next to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge in exchange for roughly $6 million a year in revenue from the North Fork casino.
The folks urging “no” on 48 want voters to send a message that California does not support off-reservation casinos. But it's too late in this case. The federal government has already approved and Brown has already concurred with North Fork's land acquisition. Once those approvals have been given, the state is required by law to negotiate a gaming compact “in good faith.”
We share the concern that the North Fork project could begin a new era of “reservation shopping,” in which tribes in remote areas seek out more conveniently located land over which to assert sovereignty for casinos. But rather than block this project, a better solution to the problem is to demand that the federal government adopt stricter standards for land acquisitions, and that the governor use extraordinary caution when giving the state's go-ahead for off-reservation projects. California should also require more revenue-sharing agreements, like the one with the Wiyot tribe, so that that the “haves” and the “have-nots” can share in the wealth and opportunity offered by Indian gaming.