A bill introduced in Congress this week and backed by the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians will attempt to stop the North Fork Mono Indians from building a casino on property the tribe has in federal trust near Madera.
The bill, sponsored by Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, says that any “off-reservation” tribal gaming facility defeated in a state referendum or not approved by the state Legislature can’t be given the green light for construction by the federal government.
The bill specifically targets the North Fork project and a casino in Yuba County. Both are under consideration for approval by the federal Department of the Interior.
The Madera casino was the subject of Proposition 48, which voters opposed in 2014. Before the election, it had been supported by Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature. The Enterprise casino compact in Yuba County also was backed by Brown but never heard by the state Legislature.
“This doesn’t prevent any federally recognized tribe from negotiating a compact with the state right now,” said Kevin Eastman, legislative director for LaMalfa. “Tribal gaming must occur consistent with state laws, and California’s voters developed a process to negotiate compacts.”
Under federal law, the tribes still can seek approval from the federal government whether or not state approval exists.
The North Fork Rancheria and partner Station Casinos want to build a gaming complex with 2,000 slot machines, 40 table games and a hotel on 305 acres along Highway 99 near Avenue 18 just north of Madera, a facility similar to Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino near Coarsegold.
It’s a shameful attempt at the eleventh hour to stop competition after our tribe has worked for more than a decade to comply with every requirement of federal law.
Charles Altekruse, spokesman for North Fork Mono Indians
The legislation, which is co-sponsored by Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and two Democrats, would nullify any approval after April 27. A call to Denham’s office seeking comment was not returned.
A Chukchansi analysis shows that between one-third and up to half of Chukchansi Gold’s gaming revenue could be in jeopardy if North Fork opens its Madera casino.
But other gaming experts explain that gaming still can take place on the North Fork land without a compact. If that happens, Madera County governments could be left without payments of about $5 million annually that are part of the North Fork compact.
The legislation angered Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who represents eastern Madera County, home to North Fork and Chukchansi rancherias.
“You all in Congress should tend to real business instead of trying to stop a legitimate business,” he said in an email to Denham. “The Mono have followed the law (for) 12-plus years following every segment in the law that has been thrown at them, and (plan on building) one of the biggest-job producing businesses that’s come to Madera in years!”
Charles Altekruse, spokesman for the North Fork Mono, said the legislation creates two classes of Indian tribes: those with gaming wealth and those without. The North Fork Mono, he said, are considered a landless tribe, restricted under federal guidelines from building on their rancheria.
“It’s a shameful attempt at the eleventh hour to stop competition after our tribe has worked for more than a decade to comply with every requirement of federal law,” he said.
Former Valley congressman Richard Lehman, who was an author of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act when it was passed nearly 30 years ago, said Friday that the LaMalfa bill is a giveaway to special interests, “takes away the federal courts’ ability to adjudicate a dispute and takes away the secretary (of the interior’s) ability to carry out the law.”
Stand Up is supportive of any legislation that protects the interests of the voters of California and ensures that the tribal state compact process treats all tribes equally and fairly.
Cheryl Schmit, Stand Up for California director
In November, a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno ordered Brown and the North Fork tribe back into negotiations. In January, the judge ordered each side to present a compact to a mediator. The tribe’s compact was selected and the governor took no action on it. The compact is now in front of federal officials for approval.
By not taking action, John Peebles, lawyer for the Chukchansi tribe, said the governor is circumventing the will of the voters. He said no other “off-reservation” casino nationwide has been subject to a referendum, and the people spoke.
Less than $500,000 was spent in support of Proposition 48. About $13 million was spent opposing it. North Fork and its backers didn’t spend large amounts of money on the referendum because lawyers for the tribe said they could still get backing from the federal courts and Department of the Interior to move forward.
Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up for California, the organization that sponsored the referendum opposing the North Fork compact, said LaMalfa’s bill is a step in the right direction.
“Stand Up is supportive of any legislation that protects the interests of the voters of California and ensures that the tribal state compact process treats all tribes equally and fairly,” she said.
The bill must pass in committee and subcommittee hearings before going to Congress for approval.