With just a week left for Gov. Jerry Brown to decide the fate of two off-reservation casino proposals, opponents are arguing that approval of one of them could hurt public employee investment funds.
Brown has until Aug. 31 to decide the fate of casinos proposed by the Enterprise Rancheria near Marysville and the North Fork Rancheria near Fresno. Members of both tribes have property in the mountains but want to build casinos miles away, along freeways on the valley floor. Opponents call it reservation shopping, while the tribes say they have historic connections to the valley locations. The federal government has OK'ed the projects and sent them to the governor for final approval.
Last week, 17 state senators sent Brown a letter urging him to reject the North Fork proposal. The senators -- including Democrats Kevin de Leon, Lou Correa and Juan Vargas, as well as Republican Tony Strickland -- said a North Fork casino on Highway 99 near Madera would threaten the viability of the nearby Chukchansi Gold casino in the foothills east of Madera. That, they argued, puts the retirement funds that have invested in the project at risk. Their letter says:
"We recently learned of another major concern about this proposed off-reservation approval, which is that publicly-issued California bonds, which represent major investment in the Chukchansi Gold casino, would be at risk if the Chukchansi Gold casino were to default. The investment firms which invest these bonds include those who manage assets for the benefit of university endowments, pension plans and retirement funds, including those organized for the benefit of public employees in California and other states... Our retired employees and educators cannot afford to have their hard-earned funds put at risk, and no actions should be taken by our State which could create such risks."
Casino opponents would not say which public employee funds are at risk or how much money is at stake.
"I can't quantify it but it's substantial," said lobbyist David Quintana, who represents the tribe that runs the Chukchansi casino as well as others opposing the projects.
The lobbyist for the North Fork tribe called the investment fund argument a red herring and said opponents are grasping at straws. Rick Lehman, a former congressman who is now North Fork's lobbyist, said the federal government spent eight years studying the North Fork proposal.
"They vetted all the impacts on Chukchansi and concluded they were not significant enough to deny the project," Lehman said.
Lehman also said North Fork casino enjoys support from the same labor union that represents workers at the Chukchansi casino.
"If there was a problem with this, I think they'd be somewhere else," Lehman said.
Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent Brown a letter reiterating her opposition to both casino proposals. She wrote:
"As you know, the proliferation of gaming establishments in California since 1999 has been unparalleled -- 67 new casinos have opened in the last 12 years. And today, with the market already saturated, tribes from rural areas are "reservation shopping" for casinos in more densely populated areas to obtain a better share of the market. This cannot be allowed to happen; enough is enough."
Brown's office confirmed that he will decide on the casino proposals by the end of next week.
Gov. Jerry Brown at center of off-reservation casino fight