North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians took another big step towards a casino on Highway 99 near Madera May 2, as the State Assembly voted 41-12 to ratify the compact between the state and the tribe. Twenty-seven assemblymen did not vote on the issue.
Assemblyman Isadore Hall (D-Compton), who sponsored the bill, said the compact would put Californians back to work and that tribal gaming has replaced welfare with work and despair with hope.
The vote came after an April 24 Assembly committee meeting attended by nearly 300 supporters of the project, including county supervisors and other public officials.
"This was another huge step towards the reality of our proposed casino project and towards the tremendous amount of jobs it will bring to our county," said Elaine Bethel-Fink, tribal chairwoman. "The affirmative votes were 'the right thing to do' as we heard from some of the assemblymen. The elected leaders are there for the betterment of the State of California and that is what this facility will bring to all."
The vote came months after Governor Jerry Brown affirmed the federal government's determination that the North Fork tribe could acquire property about 35 miles from their ancestral lands to build a casino in Madera County. The process has spurred intense lobbying, with opponents saying it contradicts the principle of Native Americans building on existing tribal lands.
Assemblyman Hall said the Mono tribe compact with the state will provide the same right granted to every other sovereign tribe in the state of California.
The legislation 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 percentage of the proceeds from the North Fork tribe's gambling profits.
Reggie Lewis of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, one of the biggest opponents of the Mono project, was critical of the vote in a prepared statement.
"The vote on the Assembly floor was a disgraceful display of leadership by our elected officials in Sacramento," Lewis said. "This compact will devastate the Chukchansi Tribe. We played by the rules and located our casino on our aboriginal territory. But the Assembly members completely disregarded our interests."
"This casino project is unlike any other casino in California history and is a major change in California policy, yet it was hardly scrutinized. It sets a very dangerous precedent to allow Tribes to build casinos outside of their ancestral territory. The North Fork is a Mono tribe from up in the hills, and allowing them to build a casino on the valley floor displaces the Tribe and is an affront to all local Native people.
Lewis said citizens depend on their legislators to consider all of the impacts of their decisions, but that did not happen, and that the fight is not over.
"The Senate now has the opportunity to consider the compact. We urge Senators to do so with an open mind and remember that Californians voted to support tribal gaming on Indian land, not off-reservation casinos for well-connected tribes with deep-pocketed investors."
After the April 24 Assembly committee meeting, there was criticism from opponents of AB 277 that they were not given proper time at the meeting to speak against the bill.
Charles Altekruse, director or community relations for the Mono tribe, thanked supporters in an Email for changing their schedules to attend the hearing Sacramento.
"The battle is far from over, but we scored an impressive first victory just by having such an amazing turnout and then again by the caliber of our presenters and supporters who rose to state their support for the project."
Altekruse noted that there is still anger and hostility from the opposition, much of it coming from other tribes.
"Those same tribes are spending millions in lobbying and campaign donations to influence legislators," Altekruse said. "We just need to remind everyone that tribal gaming was supposed to help all tribes and communities -- not just a few rich tribes."
The next step for the project is approval by the State Senate.