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Attempted Tribal Casino Urbanization in California Is Dangerous

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Currently before the Interior Department are two California “off reservation” casino proposals that carry the support of California Governor Jerry Brown. These two tribes are being touted by Governor Brown as needing additional trust lands closer to urban population centers in order to develop more successful casino enterprises. If approved, these “off-reservation” projects would come at the financial detriment to existing tribal gaming enterprises operating under full compliance with California’s tribal gaming compact.

During historic negotiations over the California Tribal Gaming Compact nearly three decades ago, the consensus among California tribes was that some were better located to operate casinos, while others were not. Because of this, a revenue share allocation plan was implemented as part of that state-tribal compact, which provided a portion of tribal gaming revenue to those “non-gaming” tribes that either chose not to engage in gaming, or were too remotely located within the state to operate successful gaming enterprises. This arrangement has worked successfully for years in California, as well as in other states with similar circumstances.

So the question here is: why is Governor Brown now engaged in this issue? Does cutting a “special” deal with these two tribes for “off-reservation” casinos allow the governor to claim a greater stake in their operations than the current tribal-state compact allows for reservation-based operations? Maybe? It is common knowledge that the state of California is nearly bankrupt and desperately seeks revenue wherever it can be found, but this plan should not be part of the solution. Allowing a desperate governor to gain a waiver of Federal Indian gaming law as part of a fiscal bailout maneuver is wrong.

Pitting tribe against tribe and compromising sound Federal gaming policy on where Indian casinos can and should be developed are powers that no state government should control. Not only is it inappropriate, it would be a travesty to the government-to-government relationship between the Federal government and the Indian Tribes as we know it and a complete abrogation of our tribal sovereignty. Moreover, the short-sighted action supported by Governor Brown would establish a very dangerous precedent for casino urbanization nationwide.

Imagine if other states were to follow California’s lead and open Class III casino-style gaming in and around their urban population centers? One need look no further than the State of Maryland where voters approved a proposed casino development inside the National Harbor on the Potomac. Such gaming expansions in “non-Indian” states, along with what Governor Brown is attempting in California could launch the biggest economic and political battle Indian Country has faced in recent memory. What careless decisions like these portend is a battle to protect Indian gaming markets from nation-wide expansions that could devastate current tribal operations.

We should also recall that this is not the first time Governor Brown has attempted such a maneuver. Several years ago, while Mayor of the City of Oakland, Brown attempted to orchestrate a land swap with a California Indian tribe in an attempt to bring casino gaming to the East Bay. That maneuver failed due to the lack of Federal approval, as should these similar attempts that Governor Brown pursues now.

Any “off-reservation” gaming under these, or any other circumstances, must be opposed by Indian country. Moreover, under the directive of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn, the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) should oppose this “off-reservation” proposal. Congress should also weigh in on this issue. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the House Resources Committee should reiterate to the Obama Administration the dangers of allowing “off-reservation” gaming, as identified through several congressional hearings and expert witness testimony on this very issue.

Let us all band together and stop this effort now, before it spirals out of control and creates a dangerous precedent that can only lead to a reversal of fortune for Indian gaming throughout the United States.

Leland McGee, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is currently on leave from his duties as president of the Sequoyah Group, LLC, a native-owned Indian economic, energy and gaming development consulting firm, based in Washington, DC and Los Angeles, CA, while he serves as Executive Director for Sitka Tribal Enterprises, the business division of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. He has also served under the Clinton and Bush Administrations, the National Congress of American Indians and as director of governmental affairs for a national Indian gaming law firm in Washington, DC.