Senate committee debates Feinstein bill

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The battle over a proposed urban casino near Oakland
has spilled over the ultimate halls of power, about 3,000 miles east of the
proposed site in the town of San Pablo.

At a hearing in the U.S. Senate dealing with a bill that addresses the
Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized the way
the tribe gained the right to gaming on the property at the proposed site.

McCain, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, was quoted by the San
Francisco Chronicle as telling the tribe it was "not the way to do
business."

The hearing was prompted by a bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein,
D-Calif., that would effectively reverse an earlier congressional decision
to allow gaming at the site. Lytton gained the right to take the San Pablo
site into trust in a rider slipped in by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in
an omnibus bill in 2000.

The tribe signed a gaming compact with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year
in a move that Bay Area lawmakers criticized heavily.

Miller recently expressed regret for his previous action, claiming that the
project had changed too much for his continued support; and said as much in
a letter sent last month to the leaders of each house of the state
Legislature.

The criticism led the tribe to significantly scale back its proposal, which
has the support of San Pablo Mayor Joseph Gomes.

However, despite the significant scale-back - the proposal has been reduced
from an originally reported 5,000 slot machines to a modest 1,000 video
bingo machines - Feinstein felt her bill was necessary.

In effect, Feinstein's bill would require the tribe to return to the
drawing board and follow through with all the steps in the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act (IGRA) for federal approval of taking the land into trust.

During testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Feinstein
spelled out what her bill would not do. This would include neither
stripping the tribe's federal recognition nor alter the tribe's reservation
status at the site.

However, Feinstein said she felt the tribe had not followed IGRA's
"'two-part' determination which provides for both federal and state
approval."

Feinstein said what she believed to be a proliferation of off-reservation
casino proposals was what prompted her to sponsor the bill. She noted that
five had been proposed in the San Francisco area alone, and about 20
statewide.

"Off-reservation gaming was clearly not what the people of California voted
for when they overwhelmingly passed Proposition 1A in March 2000 to allow
tribes in my state to engage in Nevada-style gaming on 'tribal lands,'"
said Feinstein during her testimony.

Doug Elmets, spokesman for the tribe, said Feinstein's bill would
effectively represent an unconstitutional property seizure by making the
land worthless. He disputed Feinstein's claim about the process in which
the tribe gained the right to gaming at the San Pablo site.

"Congress was acting to redress a wrong that the federal government had
made decades earlier," said Elmets in reference to the tribe's loss of
federal recognition in the 1950s.

Lytton Chairman Margie Mejia testified before the committee that her tribe
needs the income source for various tribal basics, including healthcare and
housing. Only one member of the 275-member tribe owns a home and 60 percent
of its members are unemployed or underemployed.

Mejia referenced the tribe's inability to gain land closer to its home in
the Sonoma County wine country, about 45 miles away from the San Pablo
site.

"The reason that today there are vineyards on that land, instead of our
homes, is the result of actions taken by the federal government," said
Mejia.

Additionally, while Elmets hopes McCain and others on the committee will
kill the bill, he also feels that if the bill is successful it will be
struck down by the federal courts.

It is unclear whether the bill has enough support to clear the committee.