A Congressional bill to halt the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians from building a casino north of Madera has involved parties putting pen to paper, often with fiery strokes.
H.R. 5079, sponsored by four Congressmen including Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), and a group including the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, would bar construction of any “off-reservation” tribal gaming facility if it’s defeated in a state referendum, or not approved by the state Legislature.
The North Fork tribe’s casino, proposed on land put in tribal federal trust near the Highway 99 off ramp at Avenue 18, was delayed in November 2014 when 61% of California voters shot down Proposition 48, which would have ratified the facility’s gaming compact. Gov. Jerry Brown, the Madera County Board of Supervisors, and state Legislature all supported construction of the casino, while the move to defeat it was backed largely by the Chukchansi and Table Mountain rancherias.
Since its introduction April 27, H.R. 5079, or the California Compact Protection Act, has drawn firm reactions from several involved groups.
On May 11, the county supervisors sent a letter to Denham expressing deep disappointment in the legislation, and called his participation in it a “wildly unfair and misdirected attempt at lawmaking.”
“If this legislation is inconceivably passed into law, it will accomplish absolutely nothing constructive - except putting at risk over 12 years of cooperation between our community and the North Fork Rancheria,” reads the letter, signed by board chairman Rick Farinelli.
In the letter, the board pointed to several economic benefits the casino would provide such as increased employment, as well as funds for the county through Memorandum of Understanding agreements.
“For the past four years, the Tribe has responded to and overcome every legal challenge put forth by wealthy gaming tribes and their investors intended to delay or diminish the project,” the letter states. “Now at the 11th hour, this unprecedented legislative maneuver seeks to undo all this work and progress and merely add to the already enormous costs incurred by the Tribe and the community as a result of such cynical tactics.”
One supervisor, David Rogers of District 2 in the Chowchilla area, took an opposite position and said he supported the bill.
In a letter sent May 10 to another of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), Rogers said H.R. 5079 is “vital” to safeguarding the established casino process.
“If this regulatory process is abandoned by tribes that seek to circumvent the relationship with the state created by these compacts we abolish the system that has protected the interests of the state while respecting the unique relationship tribes have with the federal government,” Rogers wrote.
The Chukchansi tribe, in an open letter dated May 10, said the North Fork tribe is “circulating rumors” they support H.R. 5079 solely out of fear for competition.
Their position, the letter reads, includes how the “off-reservation project” is fueling anti-gaming backlash that could damage tribes throughout the state, and jeopardizes the balance struck by federal law on tribal casinos.
“The North Fork and Enterprise Bands are proposing highly controversial off-reservation casinos well outside their existing tribal areas, in the aboriginal territory of other tribes,” reads the Chukchansi letter, signed by tribal chairwoman Claudia Gonzales. “These projects are not only opposed by the surrounding tribes, they were also rejected by 61% of California’s voters ... The North Fork Band’s efforts to force the approval of an off-reservation casino site has already fueled anti-gaming sentiments in California and in Congress, and it would be unwise to ignore the risks of this decision being left unchecked ... North Fork should respect its neighboring tribes and our livelihoods, as well as the risks to Indian gaming in general caused by its off-reservation proposal.”
A day later, the North Fork Rancheria sent an open letter of response, contending they followed federal law “to the letter” and “have conducted ourselves with dignity, honesty, and integrity throughout that process.”
“Now, Chukchansi wants to use their wealth, gained from casino gaming, to change the rules and deny us our sovereign right to conduct class III gaming on our lands,” notes the letter, penned by tribal chairwoman Maryann McGovran. “Chukchansi’s letter represents an unfortunate attempt to justify support for a dangerous, precedent-setting bill to amend (federal law) with assertions that range between misleading and patently false.
“We find it appalling that Chukchansi, a neighboring tribe with which we share many blood relatives, would pursue legislation that threatens to roll back our sovereignty based on the whim of California voters who were mislead by a state-wide media campaign,” the letter continues. “Once wealthy tribes begin down that road, it will not stop with just us. As Chukchansi warns, you could be next.”
On Saturday, May 14, Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) announced his support for the North Fork casino following a meeting organized by the Madera Business Coalition.
Saturday’s meeting was well attended, with representation from former and current members of the Madera City Council and Madera County Board of Supervisors, local business, tourism, and chamber leaders, workforce and economic development agencies, civic groups such as Latinas Unidas, NAACP, Friends of the Fairmead Community, and building trade unions, among others.
Congressman Costa shared his background with tribal gaming and thoughts about what was happening to the Madera project. He told the coalition he would support the project and meet with necessary Congressional leaders, including the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, where the bill would first be heard.
“I’m very impressed by the diversity around this room and support for the project,” Costa said.