A California Assemblyman has introduced a bill that would severely restrict the governor’s ability to sign off on federal approvals of newly acquired lands for tribal casinos without prior approval by the legislature.

Marc Levine, a Democrat, said he introduced Assembly Bill 1377 as a way for the legislature to decide “whether compacts are appropriate for communities.”

Levine’s bill specifically would require California’s governor, if a casino is approved on newly acquired land, to notify the legislature.

AB 1377 would also “prohibit the governor from concurring in that determination without the prior approval, by concurrent resolution, of the legislature.”

Opponents of the bill believe Levine wants to make it more difficult for tribes to ask the federal government to secure land-in-trust in California, especially for those communities wanting to build casinos.

But Levine noted that the California Constitution already authorizes the governor to negotiate compacts to permit casino gaming on Indian lands, and those agreements must be ratified by the legislature.

“The construction of off-reservation gaming does not match the expectations of voters who approved tribal gaming,” Levine told GamblingCompliance.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act 1988 (IGRA) generally restricts tribal gaming to existing Indian lands, with limited exceptions for newly recognized and restored tribes, as well as the specific case of off-reservation casinos.

Off-reservation gaming is permitted only when federal officials agree a casino on the newly acquired lands would be in the best interests of the tribe and not to the detriment of the surrounding communities.

In that case, the state’s governor must formally concur with the federal government’s decision, although there is no requirement for state legislative input.

“So this bill forces a conversation about how we plan for gaming expansion throughout California,” Levine said. “It’s not about being for or against gaming, but how do we get it right for our constituents.”

The next step for AB 1377 is a hearing by the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, but as of Monday no hearing date had been scheduled.

Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, declined to comment on the bill, with a spokeswoman saying officials “don’t comment on pending legislation.”

Before any committee hearing takes place both supporters and opponents, including some Native American tribes, of Levine’s bill are expected to propose changes or even try to kill the legislation.

“While the association has not taken a formal position on this legislation, we are aware of it and have concerns,” said Carlos Valdez, deputy director of public affairs with the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA).

Valdez said CNIGA has concerns “about changing a process that has worked for both the tribes and the state.”

“This bill proposes adding complicated and possibly unnecessary steps to an already vigorous process,” Valdez said. “We are looking forward to engaging Mr. Levine in discussions on the intent of this legislation.”

Governor Brown approved California’s first two off-reservation casinos several years ago for the North Fork Rancheria and Enterprise Rancheria Indian tribes. However, both projects have since been mired in legal challenges.

Levine’s bill was also introduced amid a new battle over the Wilton Rancheria’s plans to build a $400m casino-resort in northern California.

Stand Up for California, a gambling watchdog group, last month submitted an appeal with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), alleging the U.S. Department of the Interior improperly handled the tribe’s application for trust land status.

As a restored Indian tribe, the Wilton Rancheria’s project would not seem to be affected by Levine’s bill.

Still, Stand Up for California director Cheryl Schmit praised the bill, arguing that it would develop a more reasonable process to ensure any casinos on newly acquired lands would be in the best interest of the tribe and the surrounding community.

“AB 1377 confronts state legislators with the question of whether gaming in California should expand beyond that which the federal government foists upon the state,” said Cheryl Schmidt of Stand Up for California. “Permitting off reservation gaming will require the state to confront challenging questions about which tribe gets what and why.”

Schmidt, who suggested AB 1377 might do better as an amendment to the state Constitution, said the measure will also allow lawmakers to decide if a tribal casino should be moved from a rural area to a more lucrative urban location.

However, she criticized the bill for lacking “substantive standards for the role of the state legislature.”

Schmit said the process should involve:

  • Approval of the affected community, including a vote of the affected county consistent with the current law regarding gambling expansion
  • A rigorous environmental review process in accordance with state law by the hosting government
  • A careful analysis of socio-economic impacts and the cumulative impacts of the proposal
  • Comprehensive intergovernmental agreements that mitigate environmental impacts, as well as the costs of the county or city services such as law enforcement, fire and emergency services
  • The right of any or all affected parties to seek judicial relief before final ratification of a tribal state compact by the state legislature.

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