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Senator Reid drops opposition to urban American Indian casino

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SAN PABLO, Calif. ? A plan to turn a card room into a full-fledged casino near San Francisco is a step closer to reality after a prohibitive amendment to a bill in Congress was dropped.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed to drop a proposed amendment that would have blocked the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians from opening the proposed facility, some 50 miles from their land base.

Reid and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., cut a deal Oct. 11 in a conference committee considering the bill. Reid is a member of the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee.

It is widely rumored that Reid opposed the project at the behest of Nevada gaming interests who have suffered in the wake of tribal casino openings in California. They were further hurt by the slump in airline travel since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Currently there are 46 American Indian gaming operations in California.

Reid's amendment was proposed in reaction to an amendment to a budget bill attached by Miller last December.

Miller's amendment allowed for the land transfer to Lytton. When this was accidentally overlooked by Nevada's congressional members, Nevada gaming interests appealed to Reid when the bill went to the Senate.

In July Reid attached his one-sentence amendment that effectively stopped the Miller amendment saying the Lytton proposal was contrary to Indian gaming laws.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., got involved and subsequently it was revealed that major Philadelphia area sports entrepreneur Sam Katz was representing some 20 different investors in the Lytton casino. Specter argued the Reid amendment would constitute a federal taking of land and expose the United States government to lawsuits.

Calls to Specter and Miller were not returned.

Tessa Hafen, a spokeswoman for Sen. Reid, said her boss dropped his opposition to the bill in committee because he felt he had reached an agreement with Miller to prevent a further expansion of urban Indian gaming in California.

'I think what Senator Reid got out of this was that there will definitely be a prevention of Indian gaming in urban areas,' Hafen said.

Asked what exactly the assurances were, Hafen said Miller told Reid that in the future the tribes would have to go through the California governor's office and be subject to the rules of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

The act requires that tribes must have held the land in trust for the purposes of gaming prior to October of 1987. Lytton is an exception because it was part of a group of 40 tribes who gained recognition in 1991 and falls into the exception category established by IGRA that allows tribes who gain late recognition to acquire lands for the purposes of gaming.

Tony Cohen, an attorney for Lytton, says he is pleased with the agreement, adding that since the meeting took place behind the closed doors of a Senate committee he was not privy to the exact details of the deal.

Gaming critics feared the San Pablo casino would open a Pandora's box by allowing other tribes to move into California's urban areas. Cohen dismissed these concerns and said the San Pablo deal has special circumstances that will not be repeated throughout the state.

'You have a special case here. You had a willing community and a willing congressman. These are special factors that I certainly don't think will be repeated elsewhere,' Cohen said.

Though Reid dropped his opposition, the deal is still far from done.

Cohen said pending litigation must be addressed. If it passes that hurdle, the tribe must still negotiate a compact with Gov. Gray Davis which may be difficult since the governor has a temporary freeze on negotiating new gaming compacts.