Signatures sought to place casino before voters

Half million signatures needed by October 1

editor@sierrastar.comJuly 30, 2013 

Keep Vegas-Style Casinos Out of Neighborhoods announced July 28 that it has established a campaign committee with California Secretary of State Kamala Harris and will immediately begin collecting signatures for a referendum to stop the the North Fork Mono Rancheria from building its proposed casino on Highway 99 near Madera, and similar future proposals.

According to a press release from Stand Up for California, an organization that serves as a casino watchdog in the state and has opposed the casino project, the referendum seeks to uphold the will of the California electorate by limiting Indian gaming to originally restored Indian land.

The campaign needs 504,760 signatures by Oct. 1 in order to qualify for the next state general election in November 2014, and construction of the casino would be delayed until after the election.

In June the California legislature dramatically expanded the scope of Las Vegas-style casinos in California by authorizing – for the first time ever – a tribe with existing land eligible for gaming in the Sierra Mountains to build a Vegas-style casino on more lucrative land in the Central Valley.

"This campaign is about upholding the will of California voters who approved Indian gaming to help support poverty-stricken Indian tribes on their restored reservations, not to line the pockets of Las Vegas casino operators," said Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up for California. "When Indian gaming was authorized by the voters, voters were assured that Vegas-style casinos would not be popping up in neighborhoods. This is the time to stop the proliferation of casino shopping backed by tribes with fringe connections to the land and big Las Vegas casino operators. Now, ignoring the promise to voters that these off-reservation projects would never happen, the North Fork tribe and Station Casinos are only concerned about getting rich and not the significant impacts this project will have on California."

Schmit emphasized that a decision to expand California's policy toward Indian gaming like this should be up to the voters.

"Once you approve the first off-reservation casino like this, it opens a door that cannot be closed again," Schmit said. "All it takes is for a tribe to argue that it is not optimally lucrative for them to open a casino on its existing land, then seek new land in a better location."

Schmit said the precedent that would be set by approval of the project is extremely troubling because this time it is Highway 99 outside of Madera, but next time it could be San Francisco, Los Angeles, or downtown San Diego.

"Las Vegas and tribes are watching, and this referendum gives Californians the opportunity to tell them – Keep Vegas-style casinos out of neighborhoods," Schmit said.

Stand Up for California filed a referendum July 9 seeking to reverse the state legislature's approval of the casino near Highway 99, north of Madera.

The state Assembly and Senate ratified AB 277, the state/tribe 20-year compact that details revenue sharing from the proposed casino profits and Gov. Jerry Brown gave his approval July 3.

Schmit has been vocal against the "off-reservation" project, and wants the issue decided by the voters of California.

"Our argument has always been that the North Fork proposal was contrary to the promises of Proposition 1A that the citizens of California voted on," Schmit said.

Other tribe's with casinos, including the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, have opposed the project because it would create competition for their business and have a negative effect on their revenue.

"It is my hope that the voters across the state will give us a victory where state government did not," Schmit said at the time the referendum was filed with the state. "Stand Up for California is not anti-gambling. We are concerned about off-reservation gaming, which this is."

Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler wants the project to move forward without any further delays.

"The North Fork Rancheria's casino project has undergone a decade of exhaustive review by federal, state, and local officials," Wheeler said. "This tribe has followed every rule and obligation and deserves to move forward with their project. Our county is in desperate need of the jobs, vendor business, public funding, and economic push that the North Fork project will bring to our region."

Schmit said petitions will be circulated state-wide since the "off-reservation" casino has always been a statewide issue, and petitions should be available in Madera County sometime next week, although locations have yet to be decided.

The combined approvals by the Assembly, the Senate and the governor, gave the North Fork tribe the state's blessing to build a casino with 2,000 slot machines on a 305-acre site west of 99 and Ave.17, about 35 miles away from the tribe's reservation in North Fork.

The U.S. Interior Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs, still must certify that the compact follows all federal rules that have to do with tribal gaming. That approval is expected by late August or early September.

Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary of the interior for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, approved the casino and historically tied the land to the tribe in 2011.

Schmit and her organization feel that the Mono tribe should instead build the casino on its 80-acre parcel in the Madera County foothills, and accused the tribe of catering to investors in picking the flat land location.

A hearing was held July 16 on a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Stand Up for California and Madera resident Barbara Leach, claiming that Gov. Brown acted outside his authority in agreeing to move the 305-acre property from state to federal jurisdiction for the proposed casino.

Superior Court Judge Michael Jurkovich said he expects to make a decision in October.

Sean Sherlock, a lawyer for Stand Up For California, said Brown was not authorized to "concur" under California law because there is no provision for it in the state Constitution or state policy.

The project is still awaiting final approval by the Federal Interior Department, anticipated in 60 to 90 days.

Details: standupca.org.

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