Proponents pitch Mono casino to Senate committee

Brian WilkinsonMay 22, 2013 

Proponents of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians appeared at a Senate government Organization Committee hearing May 15 in support of AB 277, the vehicle that would ratify the state/tribe compact for the proposed $350 million casino on Highway 99, north of Madera.

The hearing came three weeks after the state Assembly voted in favor of the legislation on April 24.

Proponents and opponents of the project were each given an hour to make presentations.

"The hearing went well," said Madera County District 4 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, a long-time proponent of the project. "With the large turn-out of proponents (more than 200) of the casino, Senate committee members should see how bad the people of Madera County want and need this project."

Max Rodriquez, chairman of the board of supervisors, told the committee that the east side of Madera suffers from 19% unemployment and the jobs the casino would create are greatly needed.

"Gambling is not the only thing to build a community around ... and I know the Madera Ministerial Association is opposing this project, and I understand that, but we need something," Rodriquez said after the hearing. "There is a lot of poverty in Madera. I was elected to do something about the bad economy in Madera County. We are trying to promote jobs in the area. Agricultural is doing well but the majority of people are not doing well."

Rodriquez associates a high crime rate among young people with the lack of jobs in the area.

"Many young people in the area resort to unlawful activities because they can not find a job," Rodriquez said. "They do not see any light at the end of the tunnel. We need to get people back to work. I realize the casino will have some drawbacks, but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks."

Mono tribal chairperson Elaine Bethel-Fink, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson, former county supervisor Gary Gilbert, former Madera Mayor Herman Perez and a number of construction union representatives also spoke in favor of the casino.

Madera County District 2 Supervisor David Rogers, who's district the casino would be in, voiced disappointment he was not given time to speak at the Assembly committee hearing, was glad he was given time to speak before Senate members.

He told the 11-member committee said he had a number of reasons for opposing the North Fork tribe's choice of location for its casino.

"You have heard from many proponents who do not live in the district where the casino is proposed to be built," Rogers said. "The voters in my district have not been considered at any level of this process. Neither their letters nor their testimony were considered at the federal BIA level -- During the assembly hearing their voices were not heard because they were silenced by the chairman. The voters of District 2 in Madera County have been disenfranchised from the process and would appreciate a referendum vote on this issue."

Rogers said he wanted to clarify the record that the mayor of Madera as well as two council members have stated publicly that there is no declaration of support for the casino project.

Rogers said there have been two independent polls conducted in his district, one by the governor's choice of pollsters, and they both showed 70% oppose the site location of the casino.

The supervisor also said the proximity of the proposed casino site to the Cities of Madera and Chowchilla leaves businesses with concerns regarding parity in taxation, regulation and business operations.

"This unfair advantage of not paying taxes coupled with the casinos ability to supplement food and hotel service operations with gaming profits will result in significant losses of jobs and businesses in the food and hotel industries," Rogers said. "Who will go to the Vineyard for $25 prime rib when you can buy it in the same town for $10.95?"

Rogers stated that expansion into retail clothing and gas stations has been the history of casino operations. He said he recently visited a community with a nearby Indian reservation that had large clothing outlets.

"It reminded me that no sales tax is charged there and that all of the similar shopping in the area could not compete and many have gone out of business," Rogers said. "At the gas station on the reservation, the price is 50 cents less than the stations off reservation. Needless to say, their competitor across the road, off reservation, was not doing much business." As this committee is aware, our road funds come from gas tax. Dilapidated roads are just one of the many issues not addressed in the passage of this bill."

Rogers told the committee he has written letters of concern regarding the location of a hotel tower in safety zone 6 of the Madera Municipal Airport, which ignores the recommendations of the California Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division.

"This cannot be ignored, as it would be an unconscionable dereliction of our duty to keep the public safe." Rogers said.

Also speaking against the project was Sean Sherlock, representing Stand Up For California and Madera Ministerial Association, Chris Green and Rob Ross of the California Card Club Association, Chukchansi and Yokut tribe leadership and James Butler with the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion.

The committee hearing was chaired by Senator Roderick Wright.

The legislation is now on the Senate Floor and can be brought to a full Senate floor vote at any time, although the vote is expected to take place within two to three weeks. The legislation requires 20 Senate 'yes' votes (29 Senators with one vacancy) to pass by a simple majority. If that occurs, AB 277 would go into law Jan. 1. 2014.

If the vote is in favor of the casino, the U.S. Department of the Interior will review the compact as ratified by the state legislature.

After that approval, construction bonds can be sold for the tribe to receive the operating capitol needed for construction.

If AB 277, the vehicle to approve the state/tribe compact which spells out revenue sharing by the tribe to a variety of county and state government agencies and other organizations, ground breaking on the project could begin in early 2014.

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