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Gov. backs Indian casino

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Monday that he has signed a deal to allow a Sierra Nevada Indian tribe to build a casino along a major highway near Fresno that could be worth about $25 million a year to the state.

But the tribe lacks federal permission to put a gambling operation on that land. And state legislators -- many of whom are wary of urban, off-reservation casinos -- must approve the compacts. Those are high hurdles that could take months, if not years, to clear.

The deal also may conflict with the governor’s own policy on tribal gambling accords.

Under the unusual arrangement, the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians would build the casino along California 99 in the heart of the Central Valley, about 40 miles from their foothills reservation. The tribe would share profits with the state and an impoverished tribe, the Wiyot, on the Humboldt County coast hundreds of miles away. The Wiyot would agree not to build a casino on their land near Humboldt Bay.

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Schwarzenegger’s official policy, spelled out in a May 2005 proclamation, states that he will not negotiate with tribes that do not already own land that the federal government deems eligible for a casino.

It also states that Schwarzenegger will oppose casino construction in urban areas away from tribal reservations.

The proposed North Fork casino is less than a mile from Madera, population 46,000, and about 22 miles northwest of Fresno. It is owned by Station Casinos, a Las Vegas company pursuing projects with several California tribes.

“Placing a casino along Highway 99 right at the foot of the city of Fresno is certainly an urban casino -- there is no other way to see it,” said state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), who heads the Senate committee that oversees gambling.

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In a press release, Florez called the proposal “erratic” and “illogical.”

Schwarzenegger’s legal affairs secretary, Andrea Hoch, defended the agreement. It is consistent with the governor’s gambling policy because the North Fork tribe does own land that is federally eligible for casino construction, she said -- it just isn’t the land where the tribe proposes a casino.

“These compacts are novel approaches to providing what is best for the state of California,” she said.

Under the compact, the North Fork tribe would build a hotel and casino with 2,000 slot machines and give the state 13.5% to 22% of net revenues, with the state’s share rising as revenues increase.

The tribe also would share a small percentage of revenues -- estimated at $3 million to $5 million a year -- with the 600-member Wiyot tribe. Wiyot tribal administrator Maura Eastman said the money would probably be used to invest in economic development.

North Fork tribal Chairwoman Elaine Bethel Fink said her tribe’s rancheria south of Yosemite National Park is too remote for a casino.

“Environmentally, it just makes sense for us to partner up,” she said.

Schwarzenegger failed the last time he sought federal and state approval for an off-reservation casino. In 2005, he struck a deal with the Los Coyotes band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians in San Diego County and the Big Lagoon Rancheria of Humboldt County to open casinos in the Mojave Desert town of Barstow, where city officials eagerly sought the jobs it would offer.

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Legislators -- who can ratify or reject tribal gambling compacts negotiated by the governor but cannot change them -- refused to vote on the Barstow deals.

In any case, the U.S. Department of the Interior refused to allow the tribes to use the Barstow land for casinos because of the potential harm of tribal families leaving their reservations to work in casinos hundreds of miles away.

Schwarzenegger said he would not submit the North Fork and Wiyot compacts to the Legislature until the secretary of the Interior gives North Fork approval to use the land near California 99 for a casino.

There is no guarantee that will happen.

In January, the Bush administration toughened its stance on off-reservation casinos and promised greater scrutiny on casino proposals more than a “commutable distance” from a reservation.

Cheryl Schmit, director of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California, said the compacts, if they are ever implemented, could lead to more casinos near big California cities.

“I think the policy of negotiating before the tribe even owns the land . . . is an invitation to further off-reservation gaming expansion,” she said.

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com


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