RANDALL BENTON / Bee file 2010

A push to allow development of casinos away from existing Indian land has met opposition from representatives of Thunder Valley (pictured) and other casinos, who anticipate competitive pressure.

Tribes lobby hard for two freeway-close casino projects

Published: Sunday, Apr. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 14, 2013 - 1:06 pm

The Obama administration has said they can do it.

Gov. Jerry Brown has given his blessing.

Now it's up to the California Legislature to decide whether two Indian tribes in remote parts of the state can build casinos next to freeways many miles from their existing land.

A fresh wave of lobbying is hitting the Capitol as the Enterprise Rancheria near Marysville and the North Fork Rancheria near Fresno seek the Legislature's ratification of compacts they signed with Brown last year. Competing tribes that already own casinos are urging lawmakers to vote them down.

Both sides are seizing on the fact that almost half the Assembly consists of freshmen who may have little familiarity with the long-simmering fight.

"Now the challenge at hand is to make this thing understandable and real to 120 legislators," said Charles Banks-Altekruse, a spokesman for the two tribes seeking casinos.

"A good number of them are new and may be hearing conflicting information."

The casino proposals are more controversial than most because they involve out-of-state developers building on land the tribes are acquiring through a rarely used bureaucratic process known as a "two-part determination." Just a handful of tribes nationwide have been able to establish casinos that way.

North Fork, a band of Mono Indians, and Enterprise, part of the Maidu tribe, have each proposed building dozens of miles from the land they long occupied in the mountains east of the Central Valley.

Earlier this year, the federal government took land into trust along Highway 99 in Madera for the North Fork Rancheria to build its casino. The same process is underway for Enterprise with land near Highway 65 in Yuba County.

At least five lawsuits challenging the projects are pending in state and federal courts.

Supporters say the tribes historically roamed between their property in the mountains and the proposed casino locations on the valley floor. But opponents say the casinos amount to "reservation shopping," in which developers plan lucrative projects and seek out tribes to legitimize the process.

The arguments from both sides are coming from some influential voices.

Labor unions, a Las Vegas casino owner and a Chicago racetrack developer back the North Fork and Enterprise projects. They've hired half a dozen lobbyists, including heavy-hitters Aaron Read and Darius Anderson. Another lobbyist on their side, Richard Lehman, is a former congressman who helped write the federal law that governs Indian gambling.

Supporters argue that the casinos will bring thousands of jobs to poor Central Valley towns, and that they've met all legal requirements for acquiring the land on which they plan to build.

"This is it. This is the moment we have been waiting for. So we are putting a lot of our energy into this," said Maryann McGovran, vice chair of the North Fork Rancheria's tribal council.

Since January, she and other tribal leaders have been making the 200-mile trip to Sacramento each week from their hamlet near Yosemite. They call on lawmakers in the Capitol and conduct business from Lehman's office high above K Street.

"We do have our hired lobbyists, but who knows this better than us?" McGovran said.

Tribes that already have casinos oppose the projects. And many of them have clout in the Capitol because they are big campaign donors.

Opponents say competition from new casinos next to established freeways will hurt business at their casinos in more far-flung locales. The North Fork and Enterprise projects amount to "off-reservation" casinos, opponents argue, and fly in the face of what Californians voted for in 2000 when they approved what the voter handbook called "gambling on tribal lands."

"This is a sea change in California gaming policy," said David Quintana, a lobbyist who represents several casino-owning tribes including the Chukchansi group that would face competition from North Fork's casino in Madera.

"This will only be the beginning of investors finding tribes and moving them into urban locations."

Further north, the United Auburn and Colusa tribes fear competition from the Enterprise project, which would put another Indian casino in the greater Sacramento region. They have hired lobbyists to urge lawmakers to vote down the compacts.

One of their chief arguments is that if legislators approve the Enterprise project, they're creating a precedent for another tribe to open a casino in their district. Doug Elmets, a spokesman for United Auburn, which operates Thunder Valley casino near Lincoln, said the tribe is reaching out to the many new members of the Legislature.

"It's going to be won by legislators clearly understanding what's going to happen if they vote for this," Elmets said.

Legislators appear unwilling to talk about the issue, so it's hard to say how they will vote. The Bee contacted several members of the Assembly committee that oversees gambling issues, including the chairman, Isadore Hall, D-Compton, and members Marc Levine, D-San Rafael; Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles; and Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova.

Only Cooley, a freshman, agreed to an interview.

"I've heard from folks on both sides of the issue but at this stage there is so much coming at you," the Rancho Cordova Democrat said.

"That's an issue I haven't yet focused on."

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.

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