Two Casinos, One Problem

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[update: audio is here]

For almost two years, a pair of Indian tribes have watched their gaming agreements sit in limbo in the Legislature. And time may be running out.

On this morning's edition of The California Report, my story examines the status of the gaming agreement that would allow two tribes to open side-by-side casinos in the desert city of Barstow. Of course, neither of those tribes-- San Diego County's Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians or Humboldt County's Big Lagoon Rancheria-- hails from Barstow.

And that's been the problem.

The gaming compact, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2005, has been criticized as a precedent that would pave the way for additional off-reservation gaming in the state. And those same critics say it's simply not enough that the tribes, the governor, and Barstow city leaders all back the proposal.

Still, the two tribes have pushed on in their efforts to gain support for the deal in the Legislature... maintaining that their respective tribal lands aren't a good fit for casinos, and that a new site is crucial. In the case of Los Coyotes, the reservation is in a mountainous, remote region... away from almost any real roadway. And in Big Lagoon's case, the Barstow plan is the solution to a long running legal battle... with the state and environmental groups arguing that the coastal Humboldt reservation has too fragile of an ecosystem for a casino.

It's that legal battle that may threaten the deal in the short term.

Big Lagoon must decide in the next two days whether they want to extend the court settlement, and keep cajoling legislators for the Barstow deal. Chairman Virgil Moorehead said late last week he's not sure he wants to keep waiting.

Moorehead said he's particularly unhappy that while his agreement has sat in limbo for almost two years, gaming expansion deals for other tribes have been on a relatively fast track at the Capitol this spring. "We can't even get a hearing scheduled," he said.

The bill carrying the Barstow compacts is in the Senate, and Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) says he remains concerned about the off-reservation gambling issue.

If Big Lagoon walks away from the settlement of the environmental lawsuit, then it's likely his tribe's quest for a casino heads back to court.

Meantime, the people of Los Coyotes wonder whether this is what voters really intended when they approved Indian gaming. Francine Kupsch is a member of Los Coyotes whose economic struggles were the subject of one of those TV ads for Proposition 5 in 1998. Nine years after she appeared in that ad, she and her tribe are still waiting.

"We're still here, waiting to be heard," she said. "That's what we want. We want to be heard."

You can hear the story this morning on public radio stations statewide. Audio will be online later in the day.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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