Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler has lived in North Fork for more than 50 years and over that time he has made many friends, including members of the Mono Tribe, the tribe that has been working on getting a $350 million casino built on Highway 99, north of Madera.
"I grew up with this tribe and its tribal leaders and citizens and I know the difficult living conditions in which many of them grew-up in," Wheeler said. "The casino project will benefit tribal members by allowing the tribe to better meet housing, medical and cultural needs of its members."
Wheeler was one of nearly 300 supporters of the casino project who traveled in buses and private vehicles to Sacramento April 24 for an informational meeting before the Committee on Governmental Organization to seek the committee's endorsement of AB 277, the bill that is serving as the vehicle to ratify the casino compact between the state and the tribe.
Wheeler was one of five proponents of the project who made formal presentations to the committee during a four hour session. The other four were supervisors Max Rodriguez and Rick Farinelli, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson and former City of Madera councilman and mayor Herman Perez. Other supporters attending the meeting were former Supervisor Ronn Dominici, Debbie Bray, executive director of the Madera Chamber of Commerce and eight to 10 construction union leaders.
Wheeler pointed out to the committee that the county suffers from high foreclosures, poverty and an unemployment rate close to 14%, well above the state's 10.4%.
"We are in desperate need of this economic stimulus and this project will create nearly 5,000 jobs during construction, with 1,500 of those jobs for casino operations," Wheeler said. "After the meeting, I feel very positive that this legislature is going to pass the Assembly and will be passed by the Senate which will allow ground to be broken for the casino, and hopefully that will be by the end of the year."
District 3 Supervisor Rick Farinelli asked the 19-member committee members to look at the demographics of Madera.
"The average family income is about $26,000 in potions of Madera on the east side of Highway 99 and only $18,000 to $20,000 in portions of Madera on the west side of 99," Farinelli said. "Thirty percent of Madera is at the poverty level."
Farinelli told the committee that some people addressing them will say the casino is immoral.
"But what I feel is even more immoral is having a 30% poverty rate in Madera," Farinelli said. "The casino is the only thing that we have in the future that will lift Madera, Chowchilla and the county out of poverty."
Farinelli is co-chair with Perez of the Madera Coalition of Madera Businessmen, a group of about 125 Madera businessmen formed to support the casino.
The meeting was chaired by Assemblyman Isadore Hall III, the author of AB 277. The committee consisted of 16 other Assembly members including former Madera County Supervisor, Assemblyman Frank Bigelow.
The committee will make a recommendation to the full Assembly prior to the full Assembly voting on AB 277, which is expected to happen within the next 60 days. Then the approval process will begin with the state Senate.
Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up For California, an organization that acts as a watchdog on gambling issues in the state, let her opposition be known in an April 10 letter to Assemblyman Hall.
"We oppose this compact because it authorizes the operation of an off-reservation casino," Schmit said. There are significant legal issues regarding this compact, and many social concerns exist as well."
Schmit said California already has 110 tribes, 67 with casinos and several with casino proposals.
"Additionally our state has 69 tribal groups that are seeking federal recognition," Schmit said. "This number has significantly increased since California legalized tribal gaming on Indian Lands. Approval of the North Fork compact signals that California is allowing Indian tribes and their private investor partners to hand pick and build casinos at locations not within Indian lands, but in close proximity to our homes, businesses, churches and schools."
She also said Californians were promised that Indian gaming would stay on Indian Land.
"Before determining whether to approve the project along one of the state's busiest highways, the legislature should be permitted to question the consequences of such a dramatic policy change," Schmit said.
Although her time was limited to five minutes, Nancy Ayala, who introduced herself as the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians leader, spoke against the passing of AB 277.
"Our tribe has invested hundreds of millions of dollars and more than 10 years in building a casino that's created jobs and prosperity for our people," Ayala said after the meeting. "Not only is the North Fork casino off that tribe's traditional lands by 40 miles, but it threatens our livelihood. We're talking about a mega-casino with more than 2,000 slot machines and 50 table games. Putting a monster casino like that off reservation land flies in the face of the balanced gaming structure approved by California's voters -- and it could gut hundreds of jobs and much-needed tax revenues from our community."
Ayala was not pleased with the short time she was allowed to speak.
"The hearing in Sacramento gave embarrassingly short shrift to the tribal coalition opposed to the off-reservation casino," Ayala said. "We had tribal leaders who came a long way to speak their mind and explain our position. Instead, they were shut down or, like me, given a few minutes to explain a position that's complex. It's disappointing, to say the least. This issue is too important to our people's economic sufficiency to see tribal leaders muzzled."
District 2 Supervisor David Rogers, who represents the Chowchilla north of the casino site, has voiced opposition to the project in the past and was disappointed he was not allowed to make a presentation before the committee.
After the meeting Schmit voiced her concern that those opposed to the bill, were not given equal time to address the committee.
"Although the hearing was placed on an Assembly agenda as an informational hearing, it can only be characterized as a hearing for casino supporters," Schmit said. "Proponents were given significant time to state their story and the need for a multimillion dollar casino. Chairman Hall denied Supervisor David Rogers the opportunity to testify other than to state his name, district and that he opposes AB 277 for ratification. Supervisor Rogers is an elected official of Madera County who represents the voice of 35,000 citizens of which more than 70% have continuously been opposed to the casino. The manner in which Chairman Hall conducted this hearing raises significant ethical concerns over his intent to properly inform state legislators about ratification of the North Fork Compact. The opposition was basically muzzled. No debate and we were not allowed to ask questions. Assembly member Bigelow sat silent and allowed the voice of a fellow elected official and the voice of negatively affected citizens in his district to be intentionally silenced. It was not a balanced hearing. I hope that any future committee hearing provides a fair, and open debate."