(CN) – The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians sued California for the right to build a casino nearly 40 miles away from its reservation, though voters rejected the tribe’s deal with the governor in last year’s election.
The North Fork Rancheria is in the mountains near Yosemite. The proposed casino – expected to have 2,000 slot machines and 40 gaming tables – would be north of Madera, on land placed into trust for the tribe’s project by the federal government.
Although the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) typically frowns on casinos far from tribal land, an exception is possible if the Secretary of the Interior finds that the resort is in the best interest of the tribe and is not detrimental to the surrounding community.
The Department of the Interior issued its environmental review for the North Fork casino in 2009 and made its official recommendation in 2011.
The next year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed off on federal permission for the tribe to build the casino, and the Legislature ratified a tribal-state gaming compact with North Fork in 2013.
Opponents of the project – which include other Central Valley Indian casinos – gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on the November 2014 ballot. Proposition 48 asked voters whether to uphold the gaming compact between the North Fork tribe and the state, as well as one reached between the state and the Wiyot Tribe.
Committees opposed to Prop. 48 raised more than $18.5 million to overturn the compacts. Of this money, more than $3.5 million came from a firm that had invested in the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indian’s casino, 30 miles from the proposed North Fork casino.
The Table Mountain Rancheria, a tribe that operates the Table Mountain Casino near Fresno, contributed more than $12 million, and five other tribes with casinos contributed more than $2.25 million to the campaign against Prop. 48, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
In contrast, no committee supporting the measure raised enough money to reach the commission’s reporting threshold of $1 million.
The opposition claimed in the state’s official voter information guide that the proposition would open the floodgate for off-reservation gaming and would break a promise that Indian casinos would be on original tribal land.
The measure was defeated, with just over 60 percent of voters choosing not to uphold the compact between North Fork and the state.
But the fight for the casino is not over for tribal members. On Tuesday, they sued the state in Federal Court in Fresno, claiming that California did not negotiate the tribal-state compact in good faith, as required by the IGRA.
“The governor of California and the tribe initially negotiated and executed a compact and the California Legislature passed legislation to ratify the compact. The state’s position, however, is that because California electors subsequently voted to reject the legislation ratifying the compact, the state has not entered into a valid gaming compact with the tribe,” the complaint states.
The state’s refusal to honor the compact violates its obligation to negotiate in good faith, especially considering the fact that the state subjected the compact to a referendum vote more than a year after it was submitted to the Secretary of the Interior for approval, according to the complaint.
The state has not communicated its objections or demands regarding the compact, so meaningful bargaining cannot proceed, the tribe states, noting that the negotiation scheme under the IGRA is “not a one-way process in which the obligation to compromise rests solely on the tribe.”
The governor’s office has expressly stated that it will not negotiate a new compact because further negotiations “would be futile,” given the defeat of Prop. 48, but IGRA does not permit states to opt out of the requirement to negotiate tribal-state compacts, the complaint states.
The North Fork tribe requests an order from the court requiring the state to conclude a gaming compact within 60 days.
Meanwhile, a consolidated case against the proposed casino filed by Stand Up for California and the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians against the government is still under way in District of Columbia Federal Court.
The Picayune Rancheria tribe claims that the compact between California and the North Fork tribe was never properly made under California law thanks to the blocked referendum and is, therefore, void .
The Picayune Rancheria also claims that allowing the new casino to be built will damage its own on-reservation casino. Picayune would have a projected revenue loss as high as 32.4 percent, job losses, loss of government programs, and loss of per capita payments to citizens, according its March 16 request for summary judgment.
Picayune claims that despite this, the Secretary of the Interior inexplicably and without authority determined that competition from the proposed gaming facility would not be sufficient to have a detrimental impact on Picayune.
North Fork, which intervened as a defendant in the case, argues that it “currently has no meaningful revenue to meet its citizens’ pressing needs, and it was not economically or environmentally feasible for North Fork to build a gaming facility on its existing land in the Sierra Nevada foothills,” according to its Feb. 13 motion for summary judgment.
The North Fork tribe has approximately 2,000 members, about 69 percent of whom live below the federal poverty line. Sixteen percent of its labor force is unemployed and the tribe has no economic development activities or source of revenue other than federal grants and distributions from the California Revenue Sharing Trust Fund, according its motion.
“(T)he Secretary properly reached a favorable two-part determination that gaming on the Madera land would be in the best interest of the tribe and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community – a determination in which the governor of California concurred,” North Fork argued.
The motions for summary judgment are in the hands of U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell.
North Fork is represented in both cases by Christopher Babbit with Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, of Washington, D.C.
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