Barstow revives
plans for casino

Feb 6, 2007 4:07 AM

The backers of plans to build a tribal casino in Barstow are pushing once again in the California legislature.

Barstow’s State Senator Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, introduced a senate bill to approve the Los Coyotes and Big Lagoon Indian tribes gaming compacts at a press conference in Sacramento last week.

The bill, SB 157, co-authored by Senator Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, restarts the discussion in the California legislature of gaming compacts negotiated between the state and the tribes.

The Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cuperno Indians and the Big Lagoon Rancheria tried to push the compacts to build a dual-casino resort complex in Barstow near the Factory Merchants outlet center through the legislatures last year but failed.

This could be the group’s last effort to obtain approval for the compacts. Jason Barnett, a spokesman for the Big Lagoon tribe, said the compacts expire in August and that could kill the project.

"It’s this year or not at all," he said. "This is really the year for it."

He said supporters are optimistic about the chances of having hearings on the compacts this year. If things go as planned, the state legislature will ratify the compacts and the federal government will approve the program, he said.

Ashburn said the coalition is better organized and stronger. Environmentalists, union leaders, Republicans and Democrats spoke in favor of the compacts.

"We’ve got some really strong and strange allies," Ashburn told the Desert Dispatch.

Ashburn thinks it will be a tough fight in the state legislature, however. He said opposition will come from not only those who oppose gambling but also from tribes who operate tribal land casinos and are opposed to off-reservation casinos such as the two proposed casinos in Barstow.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians operates a tribal land casino in Palm Springs and is opposed to off-reservation casinos. Nancy Conrad, a spokeswoman for the tribe, said that the tribe does support the right for a tribe to provide for their people but does not support off-reservation casinos.

Casino supporters needed to regroup after the California State Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization voted to table discussion of the compacts in June 2006. This vote did not kill the compacts but kept them in committee and prevented them from ratification by the legislature.

Tom Shields, a spokesman for the casino project, said the new faces in this legislature give the coalition a fresh start. Approximately a third of the legislature is new this session

"We are confident they’ll get these passed this year," Shields said of the compacts.

Provisions in the compacts themselves have in the past also generated opposition from other gaming tribes. The provisions allow for workers to unionize, something not in most other state compacts.

The compacts also require the Los Coyotes and Big Lagoon tribes to give a higher percentage of casino revenue to the state than in other compacts. Ashburn said that other compacts will come up for renewal this year. Barnett hopes the opposition from other gaming tribes will be a thing of the past.

"In the past there has been resistance from other gaming tribes," he said. "We remain hopeful that we can make all the tribes happy and give all of them an opportunity to provide for their people."

Problem gambling

In the seven years since California voters backed Las Vegas-style casinos on Indian land, gambling in California has ballooned to a $15 billion industry.

Helping to inflate that balloon, according to a state-commissioned study released last week, are as many as 1.2 million California adults who have developed "significant, lifetime problems related to gambling."

The study suggests that more than one in 30 adults in California face serious gambling problems. The rate is even higher among youths, according to the state Office of Problem Gambling.

Meanwhile, the state spends just $3 million a year from Indian casino revenues to fund the agency, none of it on treatment.

Another state report last year, by the California Research Bureau, estimated that problem of pathological gambling costs California about $1 billion a year from crime, bankruptcy, public services and health costs.

Some state lawmakers said the sobering figures bolster their argument against pending gaming deals that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed last year with five of the state’s largest Indian tribes.

Those deals, which the Legislature must first ratify, would authorize a major expansion of casino gaming in the state, adding up to 22,500 slot machines.