Gov. Jerry Brown waited until Friday's deadline to announce his support for two controversial off-reservation casinos that are likely to usher in a troubling new Indian gambling boom in California.
It's unfortunate that Brown blessed these two bad deals initially approved by the Obama administration's Interior Department. The first allows the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to build a casino along Highway 99 in Madera County, 40 miles from their existing reservation near Yosemite. The second allows the Enterprise Rancheria of the Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe to build its casino near Oroville, 50 miles from its historic tribal lands. The governor approved that casino even though residents of Yuba County signaled in a 2005 advisory vote that they did not want it.
Both casinos were opposed by established gambling tribes, who argue they will not generate new revenue but take profits from existing casinos. The most troubling aspect of Brown's decision is that it adds pressure to approve off- reservation casinos for other tribes.
When voters approved Proposition 1A a dozen years ago, they were promised gambling would be contained on existing Indian lands and that the expansion authorized by the initiative would be modest.
That's turned out to be a lie. Today, California has more than 60 Indian casinos, some of them quite massive. Gambling tribes rake in close to $7 billion annually, more gamblng revenue than in any other state in the nation.
Some formerly impoverished tribes have become wealthy as a result, but most Indians in California remain mired in poverty. The gambling boom has also led to rifts within tribes, with some members seeking to disenroll other tribal members.
In the press release announcing his decision, Brown predicted the casinos would bring hundreds of jobs to depressed areas of the state. In the current economic environment, the impulse to approve any business venture that promises jobs is understandable. But the price the state pays in the expansion of gambling makes these ventures precarious. Whether Indian casinos or the state lottery, gambling preys on those least able to afford it. Many economists argue that gambling just moves money from existing enterprises.
Moreover, tribal sovereignty places casinos outside the normal rules that govern non-Indian businesses. Local governments lose their land use planning authority. Indian tribal enterprises don't pay taxes like the local bookstore or movie house. They are not subject to the same zoning restrictions or environmental regulations.
The governor has negotiated compacts with both tribal governments that he says will protect patrons and the environment and fund programs to mitigate negative impacts and address gambling addiction.
There's reason to be skeptical. Recent history has shown that even when revenue sharing deals are cut with Indian tribes, they can and have been invalidated by the courts. Beyond all that, is gambling really the best way to grow California's economy?