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House OKs bill to block casino

Arizona lawmakers are hopping mad at a Southern Arizona Indian tribe that is planning a casino and resort near Glendale and are pushing legislation aimed at allowing the city to annex the proposed site without the consent of the tribe.

The bill, H2297, cleared the House of Representatives today by a narrow 31-26 margin. It received the minimum number of votes required to pass.

The Tohono O’odham nation quietly purchased 146 acres of county land at 91st and Northern avenues in 2003. It has said the purchase was part of the land acquisition granted by Congress to replace Tohono O’odham land near Gila Bend lost in the 1970s when a federal government-built dam flooded nearly 10,000 acres and the tribe had to be relocated.

In January 2009, the tribe announced it planned to build a 600-room hotel and 150,000-square-foot casino. The resort proposal also includes two bars and a nightclub.

Republicans decried the tribe’s actions for violating the will of voters, who in 2002 approved a gaming compact with the state’s tribes that allowed them to expand casinos, but only on reservations.

Another measure on the ballot that year would have allowed casino-style gambling at existing horse and dog racetracks, but it was defeated by voters.

The Tohono O’odham nation has asked the federal government to determine the Glendale-area property, which borders the city’s sports and entertainment district Westgate, is part of the tribe’s reservation. That would allow it to build a casino on the land under the gaming compact.

“It’s forcing (residents) to have to put up with something that people (didn’t want) to do,” said Rep. Jerry Weiers, a Glendale Republican whose district includes the proposed casino site.

Weiers, the sponsor of the bill, said the casino would be across the street from Raymond S. Kellis High School, which was built after the tribe bought the land but before the casino was announced.

His bill would allow cities and towns to annex land that is bordered on at least three sides by the municipality without the approval of the property owners, but only if the owner has requested the federal government take ownership of the territory.

Normally, a majority of landowners must approve an annexation.

Democrats said the move by GOP lawmakers was less about gambling than it was about the property rights of landowners.

“I’m not sure how we can say this is not a (government) taking. This is the definition of a taking,” said Rep. Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat.

The bill now advances to the Senate. If it is approved there, Gov. Jan Brewer is expected to sign it. She has publicly opposed the casino project.

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