Gov. Jerry Brown at Center of Off-Reservation Casino Fight
In the coming weeks, Gov. Jerry Brown will decide whether two Indian tribes in remote parts of California can build gambling establishments next to freeways many miles from their homes.
The questions he faces put him at the center of a big-money casino fight – a massive lobbying effort in the Capitol that includes some very rich and influential groups.
The proposals from the Enterprise Rancheria near Marysville and the North Fork Rancheria near Fresno are part of the growing phenomenon critics describe as off-reservation casinos. But they are unusual because approval is in the hands of the governor under a process that's been used only a few times nationwide.
Most Indian casinos are on either tribal land or land restored to a tribe by the federal government, leaving state politicians out of the equation.
The Enterprise and North Fork proposals are subject to a different bureaucratic process because they don't necessarily fit those criteria – tribal members already have land but want to build casinos somewhere else.
Their projects have been given the green light by the U.S. Interior Department. Now Brown has until Aug. 31 to decide whether they can move ahead.
"It's a political question at that point," said Cathy Christian, an expert in tribal law who is not involved in these cases.
Moving the decision-making to the governor could mark a shift in tribes' strategy to get gambling projects approved, Christian said. And it has prompted major activity in the Capitol lobbying corps.
The North Fork and Enterprise tribes are backed by a Las Vegas casino owner, a Chicago racetrack developer, several construction unions, one lobbyist who is a Democratic fundraiser and another whose relationship with Brown goes back to the 1970s.
They argue that each tribe – North Fork is a band of Mono Indians; Enterprise is part of the Maidu tribe – historically moved around a large area that includes their current rancheria in the mountains and the proposed casino location on the valley floor.
Casino supporters say the projects will bring self-sufficiency to Indians who have lived in poverty for decades – and thousands of construction and service industry jobs to residents of hardscrabble Central Valley towns.
On the other side, urging Brown to reject the casino proposals, are the lobbyists and PR teams for several wealthy gambling tribes who fear the competition could harm their business. They say the projects violate the law California voters passed in 2000, when they approved what the voter handbook called "gambling on tribal lands."
"They're undercutting tribes that played by the rules, or what they thought were the rules, which is you need to build on your reservation or rancheria," said David Quintana, a lobbyist for several tribes that already operate casinos.
"Now you're going to allow tribes to suddenly cherry-pick locations, cutting the legs off other tribes who spent hundreds of millions of dollars to play by the rules in these out-of-the-way locations."
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and at least 10 members of Congress also have asked Brown to stop the casinos from being built, writing in an April letter to him that the projects "set a dangerous precedent and will encourage other tribes in the State to seek casinos far from their existing reservation lands and closer to urban population centers."
The tug of war comes as Brown is raising money for a November ballot measure that would temporarily raise taxes to plug the state's budget deficit. Gambling tribes, including several that oppose the casino proposals, have already given $728,000 to support Brown's initiative. Construction unions, including several that support the casinos, have given $813,000.
Brown's spokesman said the governor wouldn't comment on the casino proposals until he announces his decision.
"Our office continues to solicit and consider input from all stakeholders regarding the projects as we weigh the interests of local communities, tribes and the people of ...