Federal stance on tribal casinos touches off California fights

SACRAMENTO — Obama administration policies stimulating an expansion of tribal gambling have touched off new battles over proposed tribal casinos in California and elsewhere.

Since President Barack Obama took office, the Department of the Interior has recognized dozens of new tribes and approved requests from a handful of others to acquire land that could house a casino, contingent on deals between the tribes and their home states.

The department rejected nearly all such applications under President George W. Bush.

The federal decisions are causing a ripple effect in California, home to 109 federally recognized tribes, 62 of which already operate casinos. In the last two years, Interior officials have approved new land for two California tribes that subsequently negotiated casino deals with Gov. Jerry Brown.

One compact was ratified by state lawmakers but is threatened by a referendum, set for the statewide ballot next fall. The other accord has stalled in the Legislature amid lawmakers’ concerns about the gambling expansion.


Since Obama took office in 2009, just five federal applications for new land from tribes that did not have reservations have been accepted. But dozens of others are pending, and opponents of the deals fear many more may soon be approved.

Seven such requests from California tribes are now before federal officials, according to gambling critic Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up California, which monitors state gambling issues. An additional 78 tribes are seeking federal recognition, according to U.S. Census data.

Lawmakers have begun to question the historic ties the tribes have to the land where they want to build these casinos, and say major gambling operators from Las Vegas and elsewhere are funding the tribes’ efforts to win federal approval in exchange for future management contracts.

State Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) sent a letter to Brown last year imploring the governor to not enter into deals that would allow what he described as “off-reservation” casinos — those built on newly acquired land. Similar objections have been raised by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has written to Obama and Brown urging both leaders to halt the spread of casinos, which are inching closer to the state’s urban areas.

Feinstein introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate this year that would make it harder for tribes to acquire land that could be used for a casino.

The new deals have also come under fire from leaders of tribes that operate some of the most profitable gambling halls in California. They say the compacts break a promise the tribes made to voters in promoting the 2000 ballot measure that allowed tribal casinos in the state: that the businesses would be allowed only on existing reservations.

Supporters of the newest casino plans say they are abiding by the 1988 federal law that first permitted tribal gaming, including a process for tribes to petition for new land. That provision has been used rarely — just nine times in the last 25 years.

When he announced the latest compacts, with the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians near Fresno and the Enterprise Rancheria of Maidu Indians near Yuba City, Brown said in a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that he anticipated such deals would be the exception rather than the rule.

But lawmakers and some tribal leaders say there has been a markedly different approach to Native American issues in Washington since Obama took office, although Brown does not have to grant compacts. Under President Bush, two tribes nationwide received permission to acquire casino-eligible land, including the Fort Mojave tribe on the California-Nevada-Arizona border.

“The Obama administration has taken the bolder approach,” said Michael J. Anderson, an American Indian law attorney based in Washington, D.C. “The approvals granted by the Bush administration were in cases where there was no significant opposition.”

That is not the case in the two California bids the Obama administration accepted.

Voters in Yuba County tried to preempt the proposed Enterprise casino with a non-binding county vote against it in 2005. But the Department of the Interior and the Brown administration approved the deal anyway.

Enterprise leaders say local backing has grown in the eight years since that vote, and noted that dozens of local officials now support the casino plan.

“We have worked very hard with local officials and submitted more than 4,000 letters of support for our casino,” said Enterprise Chairwoman Glenda Nelson.

A spokeswoman for the federal Office of Indian Gaming did not return calls for comment.

“It’s remarkable how tone-deaf the administration has been to concerns expressed by members of Congress, Indian tribes and others with respect to off-reservation casinos,” said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) during a recent House hearing on the issue.

“As it is now, a tribe can buy a mall somewhere in a community, shut it down and open a gaming establishment,” Feinstein testified during a congressional hearing on the issue last month.

De Leon, who ultimately voted for the North Fork compact this year, said the fate of the Enterprise accord is still uncertain. No lawmaker has introduced it in legislative form, and De Leon said he didn’t know whether the deal had enough votes to win a majority.