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California

Capitol Journal: Sierra tribe would hit off-reservation jackpot with Prop. 48

Tribal casino
A proposed casino in Central California is at the heart of a battle over Proposition 48 on the November ballot.

Proposition 48, the Indian casino referendum, has many twists and turns. But at the end, the question for voters is very simple.

Do you favor expanding tribal casinos beyond reservations into urban areas?

If so, vote yes.

If not, vote no.

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That’s the crux of Prop. 48.

It’s not just about an isolated tribe in the Sierra foothills trying to build a casino down in the San Joaquin Valley off California 99 near the economically stressed city of Madera. It’s about the precedent of establishing off-reservation Indian gambling halls in population centers.

Prop. 48 would “open the floodgates to countless more mega-casinos in local communities across the state,” contends U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an opponent. “Enough is enough.”

The floodgate-opening is “pretty speculative,” contends Charles Banks-Altekruse, public affairs director for the affected tribe, the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians.

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Prop. 48, he insists, is about a compact negotiated between the North Fork Indians and Gov. Jerry Brown, and approved by the Legislature. The ballot measure, financed primarily by rival tribes and interests, is an attempt to repeal the law.

Don’t look for goodness and righteousness on either side of this bitter brawl. There is a small segment worried about the spreading illness of gambling addiction. But mostly, this fight is over who gets to rake in money from gambling winnings.

Let’s back up.

California voters agreed in 1998, and again in 2000, to allow Indians to build Vegas-style casinos on their rural reservations. Sixty currently are open, according to the state Gambling Control Commission. They take in $7 billion annually.

The idea at the turn of the millennium was to help tribes lift themselves out of abject poverty by turning their remote, useless lands into lucrative entertainment centers chock full of one-armed bandits.

We were atoning for the long-ago sins of California pioneers, when the state paid bounties for Indian body parts. Rewards ranged from 25 cents per scalp to $5 for a whole head.

In 1851, Gov. John McDougall declared “a war of extermination … until the Indian race becomes extinct.” The number of California Indians plummeted from 300,000 in 1769 to 17,000 by 1900. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there aren’t more Indians today to share in the slot and card winnings.

In some tribes, however, there are no winnings because their lands are too isolated to draw gamblers. All, however, are entitled to a small share of the total casino take.

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The North Fork tribe could have built a small casino on its 80 hilly acres — which isn’t even officially a reservation — but the profitability was in doubt. So, with the financial backing of a Las Vegas gambling giant — Stations Casinos Inc.— it acquired 305 acres 38 miles away on heavily traveled 99.

Stations would operate the casino and reap 30% of the profit.

The federal government approved the deal subject to state negotiation of a compact.

In brief, the compact requires the tribe to make a one-time payment of at least $16 million to local governments and roughly $10 million annually to the state and locals. A faraway tribe, Wiyot on the North Coast, would receive about $6 million annually in exchange for not building its own casino on sensitive land near a wildlife refuge.

“This is a contractual agreement between the state of California and the North Fork Indians,” says Banks-Altekruse. “We don’t believe agreements with Indian tribes should be broken. That goes back too much into the history of our country.”

In California, however, voters are entitled to the final say over any state agreement. The referendum is a tool of our direct democracy, just like the initiative and recall. We can undo at the ballot box what the politicians do in Sacramento.

And tribes aren’t entitled to a casino just anywhere.

Part of the original deal was that casinos would be kept on the reservations. In exchange, Indian tribes were given a monopoly on Nevada-style slots.

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North Fork argues that it doesn’t really have a reservation. But it does have land — whatever it’s called — and could have built a gambling hall there.

Nearby casino tribes — Table Mountain Rancheria, 25 miles east of Madera, for example — fear the North Fork competition and are helping to bankroll the “no” side.

But distant gambling tribes also fret about potential competition if Prop. 48 passes and other urban communities hang up welcome signs for casinos.

“This isn’t about Indian gaming. It’s about off-reservation gaming,” says Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga tribe, which owns a casino in Temecula, 60 miles north of San Diego. “It goes against the promises we made [in 2000] to limit gaming to our own tribal lands.

“If this is successful, you’ll see more of this happening, more leapfrogging over tribes into more populous regions. It’s important to stick to the promises we made. The people trusted us.”

Pechanga last week poured $1 million into the opposition campaign.

North Fork believes that even if Prop. 48 is rejected, it could still build a scaled-down Madera casino with slightly less-sophisticated slots. But then the compact would be broken and so would the side deals with various governments and the North Coast tribe.

Fine then. North Fork would still make out.

And the rest of us would have sent a message to Sacramento that allowing Vegas-style Indian casinos in cities is out of bounds.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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