California's North Fork Rancheria Band of Mono Indians is a step closer to getting a casino after the Assembly narrowly ratified a gambling compact on Thursday morning.
The floor vote came months after Gov. Jerry Brown affirmed the federal government's determination that the North Fork tribe could build a casino on a 305-acre parcel of land in Madera County, miles from its ancestral home in the Sierra foothills near Yosemite.
The unconventional process has spurred intense lobbying, with opponents saying the compact contradicts the principle of Indians building on existing tribal lands. The compacts also are opposed by competing tribal casinos.
"It's a compact that completely changes the public policy for gaming in the state of California," said David Quintana, a lobbyist who represents tribes including the Chukchansi, whose Picayune Rancheria has opposed the North Fork casino. "How do you tell the next poor tribe with a compelling story in a remote location 'no'?"
But Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, who carried Assembly Bill 277, cast the measure as a sorely needed economic boost for the Central Valley. He said the North Fork Indians deserve "the same right granted to every other sovereign tribe" in California.
"This compact would put Californians back to work," Hall said in a speech on the Assembly floor, adding that "tribal gaming has replaced welfare with work. Tribal gaming has replaced despair with hope and dependency with self-reliance."
To get to this point, the North Fork tribe has gone through a nearly decadelong approval process that included getting the blessings of the federal government, California and Madera County. It survived a lawsuit challenging the federal government taking into trust the land on which the casino would be built.
Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O'Neals, whose district enfolds the tribe and the proposed casino site, said the bill would reinvigorate what has become "a shell of a community" beset by economic malaise.
"The tribe has successfully navigated the difficult federal process and has more than the necessary local support to achieve the goal of putting the people back to work and including their community," Bigelow said.
Paralleling the North Fork tribe's quest for a casino is a similar push by the Estom Yumeka Maidu tribe of the Enterprise Rancheria near Oroville. As with the North Fork tribe, the governor has backed the federal government's decision to set aside casino land distinct from the Enterprise Rancheria tribe's existing land, and has signed off on putting 40 acres of land in Yuba County in trust. The Legislature has not officially introduced a bill to affirm that compact.
The legislation approved Thursday also advances a compact between California and the Wiyot tribe. In March, the Wiyot tribe surrendered the right to build on its environmentally sensitive land in exchange for a chunk of the proceeds from the North Fork tribe's gambling profits; if the North Fork tribe doesn't get the necessary approval, the Wiyot tribe can nix the compact.
"This tribe has survived disease, slavery and expulsion from their land," Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, said of the Wiyot tribe, adding that the tribe has endured persecution and survived but badly needs the revenue from the compact to fund social programs.
The bill's fate was uncertain throughout the morning. It initially appeared to garner 38 votes, three short of a majority, before ultimately attaining the 41 needed to pass. A dozen lawmakers opposed it, with the rest of the 80-member house not voting. The bill now heads to the Senate.
"We already knew that it was going to be close," Hall told The Bee after the vote. "Some members were in contemplation. They wanted to be the last person to vote with the bill."
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @jeremybwhite.