Bill introduced to proceed with Mono casino

State legislature will vote on state/tribe compact

Brian WilkinsonApril 10, 2013 

Assembly Bill 277, a bill that will serve as the vehicle to ratify the compact between the state and the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians for the tribe's proposed casino on Highway 99 north of Madera has been introduced.

After receiving the blessing of Governor Jerry Brown and gaining approval to place 305 acres in trust by the federal government, AB 277 has been introduced by Assemblyman Isadore Hall, III, on behalf of the Mono tribe.

The compact, that spells out the financial obligations of the tribe from casino profits, must receive a majority vote from both the Assembly (41 votes) and the Senate (21 votes) before going to the U.S. Department of the Interior for final approval.

The compact, representing millions of dollars in revenue sharing, was agreed to by the governor and the tribe last October.

Mono tribe council leaders have recently spent a considerable amount of time in Sacramento meeting with legislators, many of them new since the November election, to update them on the project and seek their approval to ratify the compact.

No specific timeline has been established when the bill will come before the assembly for an informational hearing where the public will have the opportunity to voice their support or opposition to the casino.

20-year compact would provide millions in shared revenue

The 20-year compact between the state and the tribe provides millions of dollars in shared gaming revenue with the state, Madera County and the cities of Madera and Chowchilla, and other agencies and tribes.

The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, owners of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold and the Mono project's biggest opponent, would have benefited from the state/Mono compact, but that opportunity was lost when Chukchansi filed a lawsuit against the project.

In an effort to mitigate the expected loss of revenue to Chukchansi because of the new casino, the Mono tribe agreed to pay Chukchansi up to $20 million through 2020 from casino profits. However, the compact specifically called for those funds to be terminated from the agreement if the Chukchansi tribe pursues ... or finances, in whole or part ... any lobbying, administrative, legal or judicial challenge to the decision to accept the 350-acre parcel in trust or the legislature's ratification of the compact.

Chukchansi filed a suit last December, contending the governor did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act when he issued his approval of the project. The suit names the governor, Madera County, the City of Madera, Caltrans and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Heavy lobbying opposition to the project, based on unwanted competition, has come from the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians who opened Coarsegold's Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino nine years ago and other tribes with casinos including the the 20-member Jackson Rancheria of Miwok Indians and the 400-member United Auburn Indian Community who owns the Thunder Valley Casino east of Sacramento, one the most profitable casinos in the nation.

The agreement with the state also calls for the Mono tribe to give 2.5% of slot winnings after opening for life to the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California in exchange for the Wiyot Tribe not to build a casino on environmentally sensitive areas of Humboldt Bay. The compact also provides sizable contributions to other non-gaming tribes throughout the state.

Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler has written a letter to Hall in support of AB 277.

"I have been a staunch supporter of the North Fork casino project since its inception and whole-heartedly believe it will bring a much-needed economic boost to our struggling county," Wheeler stated in the letter. "Madera County desperately needs this economic stimulus, which will create nearly 5,000 total jobs, including 2,441 during the construction phase and 2,319 during the operations phase. Additionally, it will create 1,500 permanent facility jobs, nearly 2,000 non-casino jobs in the community and $45-50 million in goods and services purchased annually, with much of that locally. As our county suffers from increased foreclosures, poverty and an unemployment rate of 13.89 % -- well above the state's rate of 10.4 % -- the benefits of this project far outweigh any potential disadvantage."

Wheeler pointed out that the county's Memorandum of Understanding with the tribe has been termed among the most generous in favor of any local government in the country.

"The MOU provides that the tribe contribute approximately $87 million to the county over 20 years to fund police, fire and emergency services and to mitigate potential impacts and also establishes new tribal/community foundations to invest in local charitable causes, education and economic development," Wheeler said.

The North Fork tribe has negotiated binding agreements with the County and City of Madera as well as the local water district, promising to mitigate potential impacts and provide more than $5 million annually in community funding for schools, roads, parks, public safety, economic development, and local charities, among other public programs and services. The tribe has also signed important labor agreements and agreed to provide substantial funding to non-gaming tribes throughout the state.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs made a final determination to acquire about 305 acres of land in trust for gaming purposes for the tribe on Nov. 26. That decision represented a major step in the lengthy federal process established by Congress to qualify newly acquired trust lands for tribal gaming in very limited circumstances. The tribe initiated the "fee to trust" process in 2004 to overcome numerous historical circumstances that left the 1,900-member North Fork Rancheria without a viable land base from which to improve its tribal economy.

The decision came three months after Brown concurred with the September, 2011 determination by the secretary of the interior that gaming on the newly acquired trust lands would be in the best interest of the tribe and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community.

The compact will be effective when ratified by the Assembly and the Senate and a notice of approval is issued by the secretary of the interior.

The Madera Ministerial Association delivered more than 2,500 signed post cards to the governor's office in March, 2012 opposing the "off-reservation" casino. The post cards were distributed by Keep Indian Gaming on Indian Lands, a coalition of gaming tribes opposing "off-reservation" casinos.

The association is made up of 30 Madera churches including Valley West Christian Center, Believers Church and Second Missionary Baptist Church. Randy Brannon, the 30-year pastor of Grace Community Church and former president of the association, has previously estimated the churches and other organizations represent at least 10,000 people in Madera.

The Mono tribe is partnering with Stations Casinos of Las Vegas to make the facility a reality. In addition to the 72,000 square-foot casino featuring 2,000 slot machines and table games, the development will also include a 200-room hotel with pool and spa, three bars, a bingo/meeting hall, several restaurants including a large buffet, gift shops and an entertainment center.

According to the tribe and the environmental documents, the project would support 1,200 jobs during construction and an additional 1,200 spin-off jobs in support of the construction. Once opened, the casino would employ 1,500 people and an additional 850 spin-off jobs, primarily from the variety of vendors who would provide supplies to the facility. The casino would generate about $100 million a year in payroll and services and supplies for the casino/hotel. Stations Casinos, a public traded company, will manage the casino for the first seven years.

Two lawsuits over the project's environmental impact report are still pending. The one filed with the state by Chukchansi and one on the federal level by the Madera Ministerial Association.

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