A new year has arrived and, now that we've closed the book on 2011, here's a glimpse into the crystal ball at what might be some of the interesting things around the bend in California politics for 2012.
Yes, some of them are more likely than others. But foresight isn't 20/20, so take this with all of the appropriate caveats.
As legislators ratified a new state budget last week, it's doubtful that many of them considered the dangers to that budget posed by the final
legal smackdown of California's attempt to get a cut of millions of dollars in tribal gaming revenue.
Now, there are signs that legal defeat puts at least a reasonably sized question mark in a budget that, to pencil out, needs every dollar it can get.
Wow, what did I miss?
The short answer, apparently is... not much.
A drizzling rain is falling here in Sacramento on this first day after the holiday break. And yes, Virginia, there is still a budget crisis.
Governor Schwarzenegger is apparently back in town as negotiations will no doubt reengage; he and I both missed the unveiling of his 2009-2010 budget on New Year's Eve. My public radio colleague Marianne Russ of Capital Public Radio was gracious enough to discuss the proposal on the New Year's morning edition of The California Report:
More on all things budget later today and this week and... well... forever, it seems.
Meantime, a quick mention of a story I filed before escaping to the other coast: a look at the possible impact of the troubled economy on one of California's most successful business sectors in recent years: Indian gaming.
Several gaming tribes are now faced with the toughest business climate since Indian casinos were legalized in California. And don't forget, their challenges also have a direct impact on the state budget -- after all, the governor and others have counted on tens of millions of dollars in casino revenue sharing to help pay the state's bills.
The story aired last week on our program.
Governor Schwarzenegger has agreed to a new expansion of Indian gaming in California, and for the the second time in his tenure he's made a casino deal that seems to set precedent. This time: two tribes from different regions of the state share the profits from a single casino.
The formal casino compacts announced this morning could pave the way for a 2,500 slot machine casino just off Highway 99 in Madera County. The casino would be run by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians. But a portion of the profits would be given to the Wiyot Tribe of Humboldt County, in exchange for Wiyot abandoning any plans for a casino on the north coast. The state would also get a cut of the casino profits on a sliding scale. Schwarzenegger adminstration officials estimate the early profits would be in the range of $3-5 million a year for Wiyot, and as much as $25 million a year for the state.
There's a familiarity to the shotgun marriage of the two tribes, as it shares some similarities with the controversial and ultimately doomed deal of 2005 for side-by-side casinos in Barstow. In that case, two tribes were to be given casinos in a location far away from their ancestral homes, largely to sidestep environmental concerns in developing native lands. This time, there's also an environmental protection issue (with the Wiyot location). North Fork's reservation is closer to the site in question than was the case in the Barstow deal, though at least one other tribe in the Central valley remains adamant the land in question is in their territory.
The formal gaming compacts are being signed today by Schwarzenegger, but are not yet being submitted to the Legislature. The governor's advisers told reporters on a conference call this morning that until federal officials approve the 305 acre parcel near Madera, the compacts will be in a holding pattern. That, too, seems to be a nod toward the Legislature's rejection of the Barstow deal... where legislators demanded that the feds give their blessing first. The governor's aides also rejected any notion that this new deal sets any kind of precedent, arguing that every Indian gaming negotiation stands or falls on its own merit.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the conference call held by the governor's tribal gaming team came in their defense of the new casino deal's adherence to Schwarzenegger's 2005 manifesto on acceptable new Indian casinos.
That proclamation says, in part, that Schwarzenegger will not agree to any new casino "where the Indian tribe does not have Indian lands eligible" for a Nevada-style casino.
That would seem to kill deals like this one, right? After all, the North Fork tribe doesn't yet have federal approval for the land near Highway 99.
The answer: the proclamation doesn't say what you might think.
Schwarzenegger's legal affairs secretary, Andrea Hoch, told reporters that because both tribes have other land (i.e., their ancestral homes) that is already eligible for gaming, then their quest for an off-reservation casino is not at odds with the proclamation... even if a common language reading of the document suggests otherwise.
"Both tribes have met that criteria and met that threshold," said Hoch.
The proclamation also stipulates that the "local community" support the project. How to measure that, of course, is the tricky part. Some local officials in Madera County have signed off on the deal, but others in the community have voiced strong objections. And in today's briefing, there was mention of a telephone poll that reportedly showed the community is in favor.
Is a poll enough proof? During a hearing in the Legislature almost three years ago for the Barstow project, some legislators scoffed at polls... essentially saying that choosing the right sample gets you the result you want. Given their line of work, you can assume they know a thing or two about polling.
One final note: it's hard not to note that legislation to ban just this type of announcement continues to make its way through the state Senate. SB 1695 by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) would prohibit the governor from striking deals for land not yet approved by the feds for a casino. The governor has taken no formal position on the bill, but this agreement certainly seems to show he'd veto it if it comes to his desk in its current form.
Nonetheless, today's news marks a significant new chapter in Indian gaming in California. Expect fans and critics alike to use it as a rallying cry for other proposed expansions in the coming months.
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.