Indian casino planned for Highway 99 near Madera must face voters

Opponents gather enough signatures to send casino plan to state referendum in Nov. 2014

The Fresno BeeNovember 20, 2013 

A referendum to stop a new Indian casino project near Madera has qualified for the November 2014 ballot, the California Secretary of State confirmed Wednesday.

More than 550,000 signatures were collected statewide in opposition to the gaming compact that would allow the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to build a casino with 2,000 slot machines and 40 table games and a hotel on 305 acres along Highway 99 near Avenue 18.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature approved a compact to allow the Madera site for North Fork's project. Brown repeated his support for the North Fork compact in early October.

But opponents who gathered signatures for the statewide referendum say the project should not move forward because the site is 36 miles southwest of the rancheria and is "off-reservation."

They say Proposition 1-A, passed 13 years ago, allows Indian gaming only on a tribe's originally restored lands.

They collected 559,174 verified signatures, well above the 504,760 needed.

In the central San Joaquin Valley, Fresno County had 19,457 verified signatures, while Tulare County had 4,112, Madera County, 2,652, and Kings County, 896.

Nearly $2.9 million has been spent by opponents of the North Fork casino project. Table Mountain Rancheria, which operates a casino near Friant, contributed more than $1.4 million, and three financing firms backing the restructured financing of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino also donated about $1.4 million, according to state financial disclosure documents.

"We look forward to making our case that 'off-reservation' gaming is not only wrong for tribes, but it flies in the face of what California voters approved in the past," said Nancy Ayala, tribal council chairwoman for the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, which operates Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino near Coarsegold.

Table Mountain Rancheria officials said they, too, are committed to following Proposition 1-A.

"Table Mountain Rancheria believes that it is only appropriate to let the voters decide if they want to expand (Proposition 1-A) to allow tribes to partner with out-of-state investors who purchase land for a tribe away from the tribe's restored reservations," said Dan Casas, Table Mountain's tribal counsel.

But the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians say their compact with the state for the Madera casino site came after 13 years of federal and state scrutiny. The tribe has only 61.5 acres in North Fork that are designated for housing under federal rules, so the tribe was allowed to search off its rancheria for a casino site on ancestral land, tribal officials said.

The referendum is an attempt to dilute tribal sovereignty, said Elaine Bethel-Fink, North Fork Mono tribal chair.

"All California tribes should be concerned by cynical maneuvers such as these funded by out-of-state interests," she said. "We are confident that the people of California -- when they learn more about who is behind this effort and why -- will wholeheartedly reject it, as they have all similar measures to roll-back tribal self-sufficiency, and will continue to support tribes that generate employment and investment throughout the state."

Under the North Fork compact, the Chukchansi tribe would get money to compensate for casino revenue losses. Also, the compact provides Madera County with about $4.4 million in annual revenue from the casino. That money will improve public safety services, county officials say.

"However this referendum turns out, this is a sad day and terrible precedent for counties throughout the state whose local economic development and land use plans can be hijacked by a few special interests," Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler said. "Madera County is in desperate need of the jobs, vendor business, public funding, and economic benefits that the North Fork project will bring to our region."

Signature verification triggers suspension of the tribal compact and delays the casino's development.

A letter from California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to Paula Hart, director of the Office of Indian Gaming in the U.S. Department of Interior, said that "if the referendum qualifies ... the part of the statute ratifying the compact will be stayed/suspended until the voters have voted to either reject it or adopt it."

Referendum to overturn Indian gaming compact

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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