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U.S. House debates bill to block Tohono O’odham casino in Glendale

Opponents of the proposed Tohono O’odham casino in Glendale accuse the tribe of going “reservation shopping” to find a potentially lucrative casino market. Supporters say the tribe has done everything by the book. (Photo by Cronkite NewsWatch)

WASHINGTON – The House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a bill to block a proposed Tohono O’odham casino in Glendale, after an emotional debate Monday in which each side accused the other of setting a dangerous precedent.

The bill is the latest in several years of legal and legislative efforts to block the project, in which opponents said the tribe went “reservation shopping” – buying land in a lucrative market and then having it declared eligible for a tribal casino.

“The passage of the H.R. 2938 will prevent an ominous precedent that could lead to an expansion of off-reservation casinos and dangerous changes to the complexion of tribal gaming in other states across the country,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, the lead sponsor of the bill.

But the bill’s opponents said the tribe has done everything by the book, and that stopping the casino now would represent just another broken promise between the federal government and a group of Native Americans.

“This is a job-killing, special-interest legislation,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, adding that it was being pushed by other tribes and other casinos that did not want the competition from the Tohono O’odham.

“This will prevent the O’odham Nation from creating thousands of new jobs, permanent and construction,” Grijalva said.

At issue is land in Glendale that the tribe acquired as compensation for a federal project that flooded Tohono O’odham farmlands. That 1986 agreement was known as the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act.

Beginning in 2003, the tribe began taking steps to purchase nearly 135 acres within the city of Glendale as part of the Gila Bend settlement, and later asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to put 54 of those acres into trust to allow gaming.

Franks introduced the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Clarification Act in September to prohibit gaming in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties on tribal “replacement lands.” He said the Tohono O’odham Nation has tried to manipulate the 1986 Act to acquire lands for gambling that are more than 100 miles from its reservation, as it previously agreed it would never do.

But Grijalva said Congress guaranteed that the Tohono O’odham Nation could obtain replacement lands in three counties without restrictions on the use of that land, including the possibility of a casino that would create thousands of jobs.

The tribe, which currently operates three casinos on existing reservation lands, says the Glendale casino would create 9,000 jobs and generate $300 million annually in economic activity.

Franks challenged those figures, saying the casino operations would ultimately provide $172,500 in revenue to the city of Glendale, which would have to spend millions on police protection alone for the casino. No surrounding cities would see any financial benefit, he said.

“The surrounding areas would not benefit from the normal sales taxes, bed taxes and property taxes, because the casino being on tribal land would be exempt from all three,” Franks said.

In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allows gaming on reservation lands purchased prior to the passage of that bill, but prohibits gaming on lands acquired after its passage. The lone exception is for “lands taken into trust as part of the settlement of a land claim” – like the lands aquired under the Gila Bend agreement.

But Franks said the Tohono O’odham’s plan to open another casino violates state law, Proposition 202, that limits the number of tribal casinos in the Valley to seven, the current number operating.

Grijalva disagreed, saying that “the very tribes supporting this legislation have built two additional casinos” in the Phoenix area since the passage of that law. He said it is promoting unfair treatment of one tribe to protect the others in the market.

He also challenged claims that the Obama administration has not taken a position on the bill, saying officials have testified against it.

“Let’s stop the lies that the administration is neutral on this bill,” he said.

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