As Indian gambling exploded in the region, Sacramento County largely escaped the impacts. That's because none of California's roughly 110 federally recognized tribes held land in the county. But that's about to change.
In 2009, the Obama administration restored federal recognition to the Wilton Rancheria Miwoks. The 700-member tribe has federal authority to buy land in Sacramento County, have it taken into trust and then, build a casino on it. Tribal leaders have hooked up with Boyd Gaming, one of the biggest gambling conglomerates in the world. They are shopping for land somewhere near Galt. One site under consideration, recommended to the tribe by county planners, is 160 acres of farmland northeast of the city just off Highway 99 and Arno Road. The area flooded in 2006, so it is hardly an ideal location.
To their credit, tribal leaders are looking at a number of sites and reaching out to everyone. Earlier this month, they made a presentation before the Galt City Council. Lured by the prospect of jobs and economic activity, some city residents, including Galt Mayor Marylou Powers, appear to welcome the prospect of an Indian casino.
But the city needs to be cautious. If and when land is taken into trust for an Indian tribe, something akin to a sovereign state takes root in the midst of a community. Tribal governments are not subject to state law.
Local governments have no taxing, zoning or regulatory authority over tribal land. Non-Indian neighbors have little or no ability to protect themselves from the impact of tribal development.
In exchange for dropping their challenge to the tribe's federal recognition, the city of Elk Grove and Sacramento County negotiated a settlement that gives them important protections if the Wilton Miwoks build a casino or other tribal development projects. Under the memorandum of understanding, the tribe agreed to submit to a rigorous arbitration process to settle disputes regarding environmental, social and traffic impacts.
Significantly, the tribe also agreed to a limited waiver of tribal immunity to allow disputes to be resolved in Sacramento Superior Court. Galt needs to secure similar protections.
The affected cities and Sacramento County also need to make sure those protections are contained in any compact the tribe negotiates with the state of California.
Beyond Sacramento County and the Wilton Miwok, the state needs to send a message to Congress and the president enough. California is home to more than 100 recognized tribes and 67 casinos. Another 78 or so would-be tribal entities are seeking federal recognition, all with an eye toward building casinos. Meanwhile, more than a dozen tribes, many of them newly recognized like the Wilton Miwoks, are either shopping for land or poised to build new casinos.
Our region is saturated with big Indian gambling houses. There's Cache Creek in Yolo County, Thunder Valley just outside Roseville, Jackson Rancheria in Amador County, Red Hawk in Shingle Springs, Mooretown and Berry Creek in Butte County. And now, the Wilton Rancheria Miwoks envision building a casino that would rival Thunder Valley in size.
When California voters approved an Indian gambling initiative 15 years ago, they were told it would lead to a modest increase in gambling in the state. The gambling boom that followed has been anything but modest. It's time to call a halt to new casinos and to begin a thorough examination of the law and its impacts both on tribes and California's non-Indian citizens.