Legislation intended to derail a Southern Arizona tribe’s controversial plan to build a Las Vegas-style casino-hotel in a Phoenix suburb is on a fast track in the Arizona Legislature’s 2-week-old session, with the full House scheduled to consider it Tuesday.
The Senate could vote on an identical bill aimed at the Tohono O’odham Nation’s project as early as Wednesday.
Similar legislation was approved by the House last year but died in the Senate when killed by the chamber’s then-president. However, his replacement supports this year’s legislation, and it easily cleared preliminary hurdles in both chambers.
Glendale abuts the project’s 54-acre site on three sides, and the legislation would allow the city to annex it without consent of the Sells-based tribe.
Casinos in Arizona can be built only on American Indian reservations.
City leaders oppose the project, saying Tohono O’odham officials didn’t give the community any say and that the project would provide unfair competition to other businesses. Meanwhile, legislative critics and Gov. Jan Brewer said the project flies in the face of voters’ 2002 authorization of tribal casinos in exchange for allowing them only on reservation land.
“We’re trying to prevent the casino from being built,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Bundgaard, a Peoria Republican who is chief sponsor of the Senate bill.
The U.S. Interior Department last year agreed to take the site into trust on behalf of the nation, but the project is being challenged in federal court by Glendale, Brewer and a tribe that operates several casinos on the outskirts of the Phoenix area.
The Tohono O’odham Nation cites the project’s economic benefits. It also argues that the state legislation tramples on its sovereignty and would interfere with the pending court case.
At a time when Arizona is struggling to recover from the Great Recession, the state legislation “says no” to thousands of jobs anticipated both temporarily for construction and later permanently to run the casino-hotel, said Knox Kimberly, a lobbyist for the tribe.
Opponents said the casino — not jobs — is the sticking point.
“If it were about jobs, they could go ahead now and build the hotel,” said Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park.
The site is across the street from a high school and within walking distance of stadiums for the Arizona Cardinals football team and the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, along with the entertainment venues that have sprung up around them.
Rep. Steve Urie, R-Gilbert, said allowing the project to proceed would set a precedent that would lead to additional casinos being built inside the Phoenix area.
The Tohono O’odham Nation bought the land years ago without disclosing it was the purchaser. In asking that the land be added to its reservation, the tribe cited a 1986 federal law that allowed it to acquire property to replace land that was flooded when a dam was built.