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Wednesday, Sep 04 2013 11:01 PM

Allow voters to revisit Indian casino deal

By The Bakersfield Californian

A young man pushed a clipboard toward shoppers leaving a "big box" store in Bakersfield last week. "Sign this to end Las Vegas-style casino gambling," he shouted. Some people stopped to hear the guy's spiel. Others brushed him aside, no doubt thinking that it was a little late to stuff the casino genie back into the bottle. More than a decade ago, California voters gave Indian tribes the exclusive right to operate casino gambling in the state, so what could have possibly have had in mind? Just this: a petition to qualify a referendum for next year's ballot that proposes to stop off-reservation Indian gaming in California.

The initiative was born in the wake of this year's approval by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown of an off-reservation casino project the North Fork Mono Rancheria Indians hope to build along Highway 99, north of Fresno. Referendum supporters, who call their campaign "Keep Vegas-style Casinos Out of Neighborhoods," contend Californians only gave tribes authority to operate casinos on Indian reservations.

Referendum supporters claim the North Fork casino project radically expands gaming beyond the scope voters envisioned when they agreed to the exclusive arrangement to provide jobs and economic opportunities to poor, remote Indian reservations. They also object to the piecemeal approach the Legislature and governor are taking to approving tribes' off-reservation casinos. This year, it's the North Fork tribe. Others are lined up in the wings to make their bids to build casinos in urban areas.

Likely they someday will include the recently recognized Tejon Indian tribe, which hopes to be granted land in Kern County, south of Bakersfield, and open a casino. According to a U.S. Department of Interior investigative report, a Las Vegas casino resort bankrolled the tribe's recognition campaign in exchange for an agreement to operate the tribe's future casino.

Before getting all teary-eyed about the high moral standing of the referendum's proponents, consider who is funding the campaign. In addition to support from gambling opponents, hundreds of thousands of dollars are flowing in from gaming tribes that fear the increased competition and from Wall Street investors who have backed existing Indian casinos.

Regardless of their motivation, the referendum's proponents have a point.

It is time to give voters the opportunity to clarify what they intended when they gave Indian tribes the exclusive right to operate gambling casinos in California. Did voters envision the scale of the Las Vegas-style casinos that have popped up around the state? Or the level of greed these operations would create, resulting in the selective cleansing of tribal membership rolls? No, the vote was a "feel good" effort to right decades of wrong done to Native Americans. Voters thought they were giving disadvantaged communities a financial leg up.

Allowing the Legislature and governor to expand tribal gaming off reservations on a case-by-case basis likely will result in approval going to the highest bidders -- or rather, the biggest campaign donors. Since California voters let the casino genie out of the bottle, it is up to them to decide how far the genie can roam. Californians should sign those petitions to help qualify the referendum for the ballot. Let's put it to a vote in November 2014.

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