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BIA backs bill to delay off-reservation casino

The Bush administration on Tuesday threw its weight behind a controversial bill that would make it harder for a California tribe to open an off-reservation casino in the Bay Area.

George Skibine, the acting deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in favor of S.113. The bill would prevent the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians from conducting gaming on land in the city of San Pablo without obtaining state and federal approval.

The BIA already took the land into trust under a Congressional rider. But Skibine said that the Bush administration has "no objections" to forcing the tribe to comply with a section of federal law affecting off-reservation casino proposals.

"The bottom line is that we do not object to it because we believe that it serves a purpose," Skibine said. "We do not believe it is proper to waive the requirements of Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act for any particular tribe."

Section 20 requires the BIA to consult with local and state governments before allowing gaming on off-reservation land. It also requires the state governor -- in this case, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has already agreed to the tribe's casino -- to sign off on the decision.

The rider freed the tribe from this lengthy and costly process because it mandated the acquisition of 9.5 acres where a card club and parking lot are currently located. A compact to turn the facility into a full-blown Class III casino has stalled at the state level but "the tribe is nevertheless entitled to do Class II gaming on the site as this point," Skibine acknowledged.

But if S.113 becomes law, it "will probably require the tribe to close down" Casino San Pablo, Skibine said, until the Section 20 process is completed. However, he indicated that the tribe might not be able to be able to demonstrate a "geographical, traditional historic nexus" to the off-reservation land.

"In this particular case, I think that's going to be problematic," Skibine argued. San Pablo is 50 miles from the Lytton Band's traditional territory in Sonoma County.

It is unclear whether the BIA's stance would improve the chances of S.113. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Indian committee, has already expressed concerns about the way the tribe acquired the land.

"The qustion before us now, however, is what to do about it," McCain said in his opening statement.

Both sides of the debate were equally represented at the hearing. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the committee's vice chairman, warned critics not to use the bill to attack off-reservation gaming in general while Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) offered a defense of the way the rider became law.

Sen Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the sponsor of S.113, said the measure was necessary to ensure the views of other tribes, the local community and the state are taken into account under Section 20. "Without passage of this bill, the Lytton will be able to take a former card club and the adjacent parking lot as their reservation and turn it into a large gambling complex outside the regulations set up by" IGRA, she testified.

Rep. George Miller (D-California) inserted the rider into the Omnibus Indian Advancement Act of 2000. He has voiced concerns about the size of the tribe's proposed casino -- up to 2,500 slot machines, and possibly more, are authorized by the compact -- but he oppposes S.113.

"The Lyttons are the only tribe in California ... deprived of the opportunity to exercise rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act on its ancestral lands," he said.

Margie Mejia, the tribe's chairwoman, defended the acquisition of the San Pablo site as "redress" for being wrongfully terminated. "We did not ask the federal government to take our name and our land," she testified. "But that happened."

"Now, decades later, when this government has finally acted to right those wrongs, we believe it would be wrong to take away our right to pursue economic self-sufficiency �- which is effectively what Senator Feinstein's bill would do," she added. She said S.113 would constitute a wrongly "taking" under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Sharon Brown, a San Pablo council member, also opposed S.113. She cited significant support within the city for the casino as a means of generating jobs, revenue and development in an economically-depressed area.

"We in San Pablo believe the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians has been the best neighbor and partner imaginable," she said.

Supporting S.113 was Loni Hancock, a member of the California Assembly whose 14th district includes San Pablo and other parts of the Bay Area where four off-reservation casinos have been proposed. "California is experiencing a proliferation of proposals for Indian gambling casinos that have little to do with self sufficiency on tribal lands," she argued.

Also in favor was Mark Macarro, the chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians. Although his tribe is hundreds of miles away from the Bay Area, he said the Lytton Band's off-reservation casino "is contrary to the best interests of all Indian Country."

The Lytton Band has temporarily shelved its Class III compact amid controversy in the state Legislature. Mejia said the tribe plans to renovate the card club and add electronic bingo machines pending future consideration of the agreement.

The next step for S.113 would be a markup and possible vote. It would only take a majority of committee members -- eight are Republicans and six are Democrats -- to send it to the Senate floor.

No companion bill has been introduced in the House. Any bill would have to go before the House Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California).

Relevant Documents:
Witness Testimony | S.113 | Tribal-State Compact with Lytton Band

Relevant Links;
Lytton Band of Pomo Indians -
Casino San Pablo -
Stop Urban Casinos -