The debate over what some say would be California's first tribal casino on non-Indian land could be headed to the 2014 statewide ballot -- as critics file a referendum to overturn the casino's approval by legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown.
The referendum, filed Tuesday with the state attorney general's office, seeks to undo last week's final approval of Madera County casino for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians. The casino, which would operate as many as 2,000 slot machines and share some of its profits with the local community, had relatively smooth sailing through the Capitol.
Even so, opponents say it would set a dangerous precedent.
"The citizens of California really deserve a chance to vote on whether they want off-reservation gaming," said Cheryl Schmit, the proponent of the new referendum and a longtime critic of tribal gaming expansion across California.
Schmit argues that's not what voters were promised when they approved tribal gaming through ballot measures in 1998 and 2000.
In general, federal law restricts Indian gaming to designated Indian lands. This project, a casino and resort planned for a 305 acre site just north of Madera, falls under one of the most rarely used exceptions to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
That exception requires the U.S. secretary of the interior to conclude that a casino project is in the best interests of the tribe and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community.
Former Interior secretary Ken Salazar did just that in late 2011 (PDF), arguing there are economic and historical reasons to allow the project -- with the latter being that the tribe's ancestors hailed from the same general region. Last August, Governor Brown signed a gaming compact with the tribe, which includes North Fork sharing some of its profits with Humboldt County's non-gaming Wiyot Tribe.
But it's the precedent issue that even legislative supporters raised in approving the deal last month. The so-called 'two part determination' for an Indian casino to be built away from a reservation has only happened five times across the U.S., with only three casinos built. A tribe with a stake in three western states has tried to use the process to open a casino in the southern California desert, but has so far run into a number of hurdles.
Even so, a number of off-reservation casino projects in California have been pondered over the past decade, with one Yuba County project still awaiting the same legislative approval that the North Fork casino deal received last month.
Getting a referendum on the ballot -- which would ask voters whether to accept the casino deal or overturn it -- won't be easy. Proponents would have to collect 504,760 valid signatures in 90 days, a smaller time frame than the more often used initiative.