California Governor Jerry Brown has signed two gaming compacts. The legislature has approved one of them and will soon take up the other. The compacts are with the Tule River tribe and the Wilton Rancheria of Miwok Indians.
Last week Brown signed a compact with the Tule River Indian Tribe, which extends the compact for the tribe’s Eagle Mountain Casino past the 2020 expiration for the original. The compact still needs approval by both houses of the legislature.
The compact does not address the tribe’s current efforts to relocate the casino to property it owns adjacent to the Porterville Municipal Airport. It will need to have the land put into trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and then have the new location approved by Brown.
The tribal gaming compact was updated to bring it in line with compacts the governor has signed in recent years, including differences in the mitigation process and paying into the special distribution fund.
The special distribution fund was created in 2004 by the original gaming compacts. Its purpose was to pay mitigation for impacts to local communities. Fewer and fewer tribes have paid into it as more tribal compacts allowed them to contribute directly to those affected, rather than filter the money through the state’s general fund.
The special distribution fund’s coffers declined in recent years because many tribes don’t pay into it any more. The Tule River tribe is one that still does. Since its establishment, more than $4 million has been distributed locally from the fund, about $350,000 each year. Most went to the City of Porterville and Tulare County.
The new compact will change this arrangement. Tribal Chairman Neil Peyron told the Porterville Recorder: “In the revised compact, the tribe and local governments’ work directly to address local mitigation issues ensuring that local governments are receiving their fair share of resources.”
Peyron wrote a letter to a lawmaker thanking him for his vote. “The Eagle Mountain Casino is essential to the tribe’s viability,” he wrote. “With revenues from the casino, the tribe has invested in improving the reservation and its members by establishing a fire department, police department, medical and dental facility, elementary school, justice center, student study center, and Veterans center.”
The casino helps fuel the tribal government’s employment of 375 people, plus 500 the casino employs. Peyron told the Recorder the revision would “be a great benefit to the tribe and the City of Porterville and the County of Tulare.”
Both the Senate and Assembly unanimously approved the gaming compact the governor signed in July with the Wilton Rancheria of Miwok Indians. The compact allows the tribe to go forward with its goal of building the first Indian casino in Sacramento County on 36 acres in an unfinished shopping mall in Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento, adjacent to Highway 99.
The casino could open as soon as 2020.
Brown will again need to sign the compact and it must be endorsed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The compact allows for a $500 million casino with 2,500 slot machines on a 110,000-square foot gaming floor. The resort would have several restaurants, a spa, a hotel tower with 302 rooms. Its convention center would rival anything in downtown Sacramento, the state capitol. The tribe would pay the state 6 percent of gaming profits into a fund for tribes that don’t have casinos.
Tribal Chairman Raymond C. Hitchcock pronounced himself “ecstatic” by the twin approvals.
The federal government took away the tribe’s recognition and reservation in the 1950s. Decades later, in 2009, the tribe reclaimed its recognition but not its traditional homeland. Many of the 750 tribal members live in poverty, without jobs. Hitchcock says the tribe wants to achieve “economic sustainability and self-sovereignty” to help them.
For two years the tribe has sought land for a reservation and casino and permission to build on it. The tribe originally set its sights on the town of Galt, but then turned its focus to Elk Grove and Outlet Collection at Elk Grove.
The tribe hopes to use gaming profits to help the tribe rise above its 60 percent unemployment rate, 14 percent college graduation rate and the fact that nearly 40 percent lack health insurance.
In February, the tribe acquired 36 acres in an unfinished mall in Elk Grove. Area cardrooms helped fund opposition and several local residents went to court to fight the casino, with the California casino watchdog group Stand Up California joining in. Their case was helped by the appearance that the Elk Grove city council worked behind the scenes without public input to enable the tribe to acquire the mall property by altering a development agreement it had with the mall’s owner, the Howard Hughes Corporation. The tribe bought the land with money provided by its financial partner Boyd Gaming Corp.
Besides going to court the opponents also challenged the BIA’s action putting the land into trust, which happened on January 19, as the Obama administration was transitioning into the Trump administration. Some aspects of the last-minute approval struck the opponents as irregular, and they challenged it—unsuccessfully.
Elk Grove City Council members and the chairman of the Elk Grove Chamber of Commerce were among those who spoke in favor of the compact at a Senate hearing held on August 22. Rep. Jim Cooper, whose district includes Elk Grove, wrote Assembly Bill 1606, the compact ratification. He introduced council members Pat Hume and Stephanie Nguyen, who spoke as individuals, rather than representing the council.
Hume declared, “In its first quarter century of existence, (assistance from the Wilton Rancheria) will be north of $250 million to the county of Sacramento, the city of Elk Grove, the Elk Grove Unified School District, local nonprofits.”
He said he admired the tribe’s efforts to become self-sufficient “to where they’re funding themselves and funding their own programs and getting themselves off of the United States’ taxpayers.”
Nguyen added, “Our city and our region are lacking so much of the funds to be able to support this community, and so I’m in very full support of this project,” she said, adding that the community would benefit from the thousands of jobs that would be created, both directly and indirectly.
Other speakers touted the casino’s ability to close the gap on “over $1 billion in retail leakage in Elk Grove” and to provide high-paying jobs while boosting the tourism industry.
John Broughton, chairman of the Elk Grove Chamber of Commerce, told the committee: “As a community partner, we say that they’ll be an infusion of monies and support. As mentioned, there will be $132 million in services for payments for law enforcement, fire protection, traffic improvements, roadway maintenance and utilities. And for a philanthropic support for local charities, youth sports and school programs within our community.”
Local labor unions, particularly construction unions, also supported the casino. Speaking for UNITE HERE, which has 300,000 hotel and casino worker members nationwide, Jack Gibbon said, “Given what the tribe’s current mandate is—which is to lift their own tribe up with economic development—this is a very, very humbling thing for us at UNITE HERE.”
Although opponents like a San Bruno cardroom owner and Stand Up for California complained that the tribal compact was being “fast tracked” and the public had no time to be heard properly, Senator Ben Hueso demurred. “Let me tell you, there’s nothing that is being forced through any particular process,” he said. “But in California, this is the process. We’re following the process. Nothing in particular about this project, to me in my mind, is at all expedited. Nothing in my mind goes through any loophole.”
Boyd Gaming, which will build and manage the property, says it is looking at groundbreaking for the casino in mid-2018, with opening the doors up to 24 months later. Boyd Gaming Chief Executive Officer Keith Smith commented after the vote: “We congratulate the Wilton Rancheria for reaching this critical milestone in the tribe's progress toward self-sufficiency. We look forward to working with them in the years ahead as we help make their vision of a world-class gaming resort a reality.”