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Bill to block casino passes House, but Farnsworth’s ‘no’ may thwart its intent

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (File Photo)

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (File Photo)

A bill aimed at stopping the Tohono O’odham tribe from building a casino in Glendale passed the House of Representatives on a near-party line vote, but the lone Republican dissenter may keep the bill from having any effect.

The House on Tuesday passed HB2534, which would allow Glendale to annex the county island on which the Tohono O’odham tribe plans to build its casino. The bill passed on a 39-21 vote.

But Rep. Eddie Farnsworth’s “no” vote kept the bill from getting the two-thirds majority it needed for an emergency clause, meaning it won’t go into effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends. With oral arguments in a federal lawsuit over the casino scheduled for Feb. 17, the court could rule in favor of the tribe before Glendale has a chance to use annexation.

The Senate must still vote on a companion bill, SB1136. Gov. Jan Brewer, a Glendale resident, opposes the casino and is a party in the lawsuit against it.

The Senate is expected to pass its bill, but it too may fall short of the two-thirds majority needed for the emergency clause to kick in.

The bill would allow municipalities to forcibly annex territory that is bordered on three sides by its city limits if the landowner asks the federal government to take ownership of it. The bill would block the Tohono O’odham’s request that the U.S. Department of the Interior take a parcel of land near 91st and Northern avenues so it can be converted into reservation land.

Farnsworth, a Gilbert Republican, said he was concerned that bill would threaten private property rights.

“We are walking into unprecedented territory, and that territory is that we are going to grant a municipality the right to force annexation when not a single property owner has requested it, and in fact opposes it,” Farnsworth said.

Rep. Jerry Weiers, a Glendale Republican who sponsored the bill, said he didn’t think the failure of the emergency clause would hinder the bill’s effectiveness. He acknowledged that Glendale would have to wait before annexing the land, but said he thought the U.S. District Court would take the Legislature’s actions into account when it issues a ruling in the case.

“What I’m saying is I think when the feds start looking at this they start looking at everything – churches and everybody, and everybody having a say-so in this – they’re going to say, ‘You know what? We have some issues out here. We need to slow down and really analyze this whole thing instead of just rushing it through like the (tribe has) been asking,’” Weiers said.

Attorney Brian Bergin, who is representing Glendale in the casino lawsuit, said he expected the court to rule quickly.

“It’s always hard to put a court on a shot clock,” he said. “My guess … is that within a couple weeks we’ll probably see a ruling.”

The losing party in the lawsuit is likely to appeal the district court’s ruling, which would leave the case tied up in court when the new law goes into effect. But opponents of HB2534 argue that the bill violates the Arizona Constitution’s prohibition on special legislation, which prohibits laws that grant “exclusive privileges, immunities or franchises,” and the Tohono O’odham could sue on those grounds if Glendale moved to annex the casino site.

Weiers said he wasn’t worried about the possibility of a lawsuit.

“We face lawsuits on everything. The fact is, sitting idly by and doing nothing and allowing this to be crammed down our throats obviously is not an option,” he said.

Weiers didn’t address Farnsworth’s concerns over individual property rights, saying instead that allowing the tribe to build a casino in violation of Arizona’s Indian gaming compact would infringe on the rights of Glendale residents. Casino opponents say the casino would open the door to off-reservation gambling all over the state. Glendale officials say it would lead to more crime and require additional police and other city services in the area.

“Keep in mind, we have a separate government coming in here, trying to overrun or change a city government’s way of doing things. Their master plan and everything is just blown to hell. I have a problem with that,” Weiers said. “As a resident of Glendale, I have a problem with somebody coming in and trying to change my way of life.”

Farnsworth voiced his concerns during a debate over an amendment proposed by Democratic Rep. Anna Tovar. The bill requires city councils to approve the annexations with a two-thirds vote, and Tovar proposed requiring a three-fourths vote. The three-fourths vote was required in the bill’s 2010 predecessor, though the language was later changed to require a simple majority vote by city councils.

The Tovar amendment failed on a voice vote and fell short on a 37-22 roll call vote

Weiers said he had no plans to bring HB2534 up for reconsideration in an attempt to get it passed with an emergency clause.

“The one thing I know is Farnsworth’s a big rock,” he said, “and trying to push him doesn’t do any good.”

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