By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The state Senate is set to vote Monday on the governor’s agreement with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria that the tribe needs to start work on a $700 million casino next to Rohnert Park.
It would be the latest in a series of developments in the past month that have moved the tribe’s controversial casino plans — in the works for nine years — to the verge of fruition.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed the agreement, called a compact, on March 27. It needs two-thirds approval from both houses of the Legislature to move on to the federal level, the last governmental hurdle before construction can begin.
Political and Indian gambling experts suggested on Friday that the road is virtually clear for the tribe, which wants to open a casino with 3,000 slot machines near Highway 101 just west of the Scandia Family Fun Center.
Based on the speed at which the compact moved through legislative hearings this week, it seems certain to win lawmakers’ approval, observers said.
“Something doesn’t move along this fast unless the opposition has been dealt with,” said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State University political scientist.
“These legislators are pretty good at counting noses,” said Gerston, a public policy process expert. “The votes have been counted ahead of time.”
Should it pass the Legislature, the compact goes to the federal Department of the Interior, which has 45 days to approve or reject it.
A rejection is doubtful, said Katherine Spilde, an associate professor at San Diego State University.
“We’re 24 years into tribal gaming policymaking … at this point sending in a compact that would violate (the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) is not likely,” Spilde said.
“Generally by the time it gets to the federal government it has already been checked for those potential violations,” said Spilde, who heads the university’s Sycuan Institute of Tribal Gaming, which is funded by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, in San Diego County.
Anthony Cohen, a Santa Rosa attorney who works on tribal and Indian gambling issues, offered a similar assessment. “I would say it (the Department of Interior’s approval) is not automatic but it’s a virtual certainty,” he said.
Even the most dedicated casino opponents acknowledged Friday that their efforts may have hit a dead end.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Chip Worthington of the Stop the Casino 101 coalition of groups that have fought the casino project, often in court.
“If there was enough time it could be stopped, but they pushed it through not allowing anybody to lobby,” said Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor. “The whole process is corrupt.”
Two nods of support at an Assembly hearing Wednesday may have proved decisive, Cohen said.
“The endorsement by the California State Association of Counties was huge,” he said. The association said that the compact struck the balance it was looking for between tribal sovereign rights and enabling surrounding communities to negotiate to lessen the impacts of a casino.
Also important, said Cohen, was a statement by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, of Riverside County, which operates one of the state’s largest casinos, that the tribe was not against the compact.
“The fact that a major, influential gaming tribe from Southern California would step up and make a point of saying ‘We do not oppose it’ was also huge, especially because of all the mumbling about Indian tribes that were going to oppose it,” he said.
Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said she met Thursday with Sarris, other tribal members and the tribe’s attorneys and they gave her a stack of environmental reports to review before Monday’s vote.
But Evans, who has said she will not support the compact without a signed agreement in place between the county and the tribe to address the casino’s environmental and traffic impacts, was still in the opposition camp on Friday.
“Groundwater, wastewater and transportation to my knowledge have not been addressed,” she said.
However, Evans acknowledged, “I’m assuming they have the votes if they’re bringing it up.”
News that the compact bill was moving to the Senate delighted supporters of the casino.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to death it’s coming forward,” said Robert Silvey, Sr., who lives just outside Rohnert Park near the site of the proposed casino.
“This is going to provide a lot of jobs,” he said, “I think it’s going to save Rohnert Park.”
The tribe signed a revenue-sharing agreement with the city in 2005 committing $200 million over 20 years for public safety services, education and other community needs.
Sonoma County and the tribe, though they have an agreement to negotiate, have not reached a deal on precise payments the tribe is to make to address the casino’s impacts. The compact does spell out in some detail how those payments will be made and how much they will be. It also calls for the agreement between the county and the tribe to be signed before work can begin on the casino.
Federated Indians chairman Greg Sarris did not return a call seeking comment Friday. Officials with Station Casinos, the Las Vegas company bankrolling the project, also declined to comment. They previously have said they hope to start work this summer.
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.