Casino referendum likely but panned by Brown

8:23 PM, Sep 27, 2013   |    comments
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It looks as though California voters are going to be asked to either rubber stamp or reject a Central Valley tribal casino project next fall, as backers of a referendum say they've gathered enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot.

But the measure will likely face strong criticism from the man who negotiated the plan, Gov. Jerry Brown, who on Friday derided the effort as a costly mistake.

"It's unfortunate that tens of millions of dollars will now go to fight over this," said the governor in a hallway interview after he spoke at Friday's gathering at the Capitol of Indian tribal leaders from across the state.

The referendum seeks to block the construction of a 2,000 slot machine casino and resort in Madera County just off Highway 99 for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, a site that is not the tribe's traditional land.  The casino would also provide revenue for the Wiyot Tribe of Humboldt County, and has both the approval of federal officials and the state.

But critics say the proposal, the first in what even federal officials call an 'off reservation' agreement, is a dangerous precedent that runs counter to the original intent of voters authorizing legal tribal gaming in 1998 and 2000.

"Voters should have a chance to weigh in to see if this is a good deal or not," said Andrew Acosta, the political consultant hired to run the pro-referendum effort.

Acosta says the campaign expects to submit more than 800,000 signatures to elections officials across the state on Tuesday.  The measure needs 504,760 valid signatures to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.  Campaign finance records show supporters of the effort to block the casino project raised more than $1.6 million to collect those signatures in the narrow 90 day time frame allowed for a referendum.

The governor dismissed the effort as nothing more than an effort by tribes in the vicinity of the North Fork project to block competition.  And he suggested Friday the referendum may not succeed, due to the intricacies of the 1988 federal law that allows large scale tribal casinos.

"Some interpretations of the law suggest that the federal government can impose that compact" even without state approval, said Brown.

Others suggest that once the tribal gaming compact is published in the Federal Register -- which is expected prior to the November 2014 state election -- the project could have all the clearance it needs to break ground.  No doubt that interpretation could, and probably would, be challenged in court.

While there were four referenda measures to overturn casino compacts in 2008 (all four proposals were ratified by voters), those were revised deals for existing casinos; no proposal for a new casino project has ever faced a statewide vote.

The legislative debate over the North Fork project led to calls from lawmakers for a re-examination of the state's casino approval process.  It also left another project in limbo, a casino designated as off-reservation and planned for a 40 acre parcel in Yuba County near Olivehurst.  That project, an effort by the Enterprise Rancheria of Estom Yumeka Maidu, could face tough sledding in the statehouse in the wake of the North Fork saga.

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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