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Might 2014 ballot fight over Valley casino be too late?

10:02 AM, Oct 22, 2013   |    comments
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And now, a question seemingly without any precedent in the 25 years since large-scale Indian gaming in the U.S. was legalized: if a tribal casino project clears all its regulatory hurdles, can a state ballot referendum still stop it?

That question became operative on Tuesday, when a proposed Madera County off-reservation casino received what looks like its final government blessing: a notice published in the Federal Register.

"The compact is considered to have been approved," says a brief narrative in the Washington, D.C. published list of government announcements.

That notice has always been considered the final step in a process that includes approval by both federal and state officials.  The North Fork proposal, announced by Gov. Jerry Brown in August 2012, was approved by the Legislature in June.

But plans for the 2,000 slot machine casino north of Fresno just off Highway 99 ignited a formal effort to overturn the Legislature's approval via the referendum process.  On July 9, the proposed referendum was filed; earlier this month, critics of the casino plan submitted more than 800,000 signatures.

The casino is one of two agreed to by Brown that would be built away from what was originally designated as tribal land.  It would also share its profits with a second tribe, the Wiyot Tribe of Humboldt County -- whose own notice appeared in the Federal Register on Sept. 6.

And to further complicate things, the referendum -- if it qualifies -- won't appear on the ballot until November 2014.  Under a law written by Democrats and signed by Brown in 2011, the vast majority of ballot measures can no longer appear on June primary ballots.

"This is an important day for North Fork, Madera County, and poorer tribes across the state who will directly benefit," said tribal chair Elaine Bethel Fink in a written statement.

But will the tribe move forward with development of the site? Or will it wait for up to another year for a potential campaign to cancel its gaming compact?

A North Fork spokesman said it's still too soon to do more than "evaluate where we are."  And it's important to note that the casino project still faces some local hurdles, too.

But the seal of approval from the feds is noteworthy.  A spokesman for the group seeking to overturn the casino deal by referendum believes the federal notice of approval doesn't stop their efforts -- because Californians have the state constitutionally reserved power to repeal actions taken at the state Capitol.

It's clearly an unusual situation.  Don't be surprised if the answer ultimately will have to come from the courts.

Update 1:35 p.m.  In an emailed statement, referendum proponent Cheryl Schmit says she's asked state elections officials to notify federal officials that the statute ratifying North Fork's compact should be considered "stayed" while it's being contested by the campaign.

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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