No Federal Approval, No Casino?

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Legislation to change how, and possibly where, new Indian casinos are built in California cleared its first hurdle today at the state Capitol.

For years, the most controversial part of the tribal gaming process has been casinos proposed for land that either isn't an ancestral reservation... or land that the federal government hasn't yet recognized as part of a tribe's reservation. Critics have derided such proposals as examples of "reservation shopping," accusing tribes and their deep-pocketed investors of choosing locations solely based on how much money can be made.

The legislation in question, SB 1695, would change the way new casinos are approved, by prohibiting the governor from negotiating with any tribe whose casino land hasn't yet been sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Interior.

(A quick explainer to those who don't follow this issue much: federal law lays out a long process for non-Indian land to become a reservation. It also requires a tribe to negotiate a formal gaming agreement, known as a compact, with the governor of the state before opening a casino.)

Governor Schwarzenegger has negotiated a number of casino compacts with Indian tribes since he took office, but his most controversial deals have seemed to be ones where the land hadn't yet secured a federal OK. Most notable on this list: the long saga of the two tribes wanting to build side-by-side casinos in Barstow... even though the tribes' reservations are in another part of the state. Schwarzenegger agreed to the casinos long before the feds had ruled on the proposal; earlier this year it was rejected.

The bill, authored by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), simply says that the governor can't negotiate a formal compact until the feds have had their say. The current version of the legislation is notably more tame than the original, which would have essentially banned any tribe from opening a casino on land away from its ancestral home... presumably even if that tribe no longer has a reservation (and many don't).

The bill sailed out of the Senate Governmental Organization committee this afternoon, which Florez chairs (its one dissenting vote: Sen. Pat Wiggins, a Democrat whose northern California district includes one of the tribes that wanted to go to Barstow).

A spokesperson for Schwarzenegger said the guv won't take a position on the bill until it reaches his desk.

If the Legislature sends it to him, it certainly puts him in an interesting position: if he signs it, it would seem to imply that some mistakes were made in the past. And it would seemingly derail secret negotiations he might currently be conducting with some tribes (though there's no official confirmation that any casno negotiations are even underway).

But if he vetoes it, critics of the rapid expansion of Indian gambling will say the governor is ignoring the plight of communities that don't want casinos, and that he's being inconsistent with his earlier pronouncements about the siting of new tribal gambling facilities.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia 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. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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