GOVERNOR PUTS OFF LYTTONS' CASINO

Published on August 28, 2004
2004- The Press Democrat

BYLINE:    GUY KOVNER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PAGE: A1

The state Legislature refused to approve a Sonoma County Indian tribe's plan to build one of the largest and most lucrative casinos in California, handing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a significant political loss and setting the stage for a new fight after the first of the year.

While Lytton Band of Pomo Indians representatives expressed confidence their proposed 2,500-slot machine casino in San Pablo eventually will win approval, some lawmakers said they remain wary of approving the first gaming hall in a major metropolitan area.

``I think it will be a very tough sell,'' Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, said.

The 259-member tribe, whose ancestral home is in Alexander Valley, gained the right to operate the casino thanks to special federal legislation by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. They hope to use casino proceeds to one day build a reservation outside Windsor.

Nation said it was clear Schwarzenegger sees tribal casino expansion as a bonanza for the cash-strapped state.

``I feel a little bit as if the process is careening out of control,'' Nation said.

Faced with bipartisan opposition to the Lytton agreement, known as a compact, the governor pulled it from a package of four other casino deals, including one for the Coyote Valley Pomos, who operate Shodakai Casino north of Ukiah.

The four compacts were approved 41-15 by the Assembly on Thursday and 21-12 by the Senate on Friday, the last day of the 2004 legislative session.

Nation said he voted against the four compacts for various reasons, including the allowance of unlimited slots.

``The trend is heading absolutely in the wrong direction,'' he said, noting five tribal gaming compacts approved in June also had no limit on slot machines, each of which collects an average of more than $100,000 a year.

The Lyttons casino, to be built on a 9.5-acre tribe-owed site in San Pablo, would be allowed 2,500 slots, making it among the largest in the state with a potential to reap about $400 million a year.

Under the terms of the proposed compact, the tribe will pay 25 percent of its gaming profits to the state, while competition within a 35-mile radius is discouraged.

The casino's size was slashed from 5,000 slot machines when opposition quickly mounted against the original deal set by the governor and the tribe.

But the concession wasn't enough to mollify critics, prompting postponement of a vote until January, when the Legislature reconvenes.

``We look forward to working ... with the governor and the state when our compact returns to the Legislature in calmer atmosphere,'' Lytton tribal chairwoman Margie Mejia said in a statement.

An aide said Schwarzenegger is confident lawmakers ``will agree that this is a good compact.''

Cheryl Schmit, an Indian gaming watchdog, said she thought the standoff was Sacramento politics as usual, with Bay Area Democrats upset more by Schwarzenegger's stinginess over state funding for a $7.4 billion Bay Bridge earthquake retrofit than by terms of the Lytton casino deal.

Sen. Don Perata of Oakland, who will lead Senate Democrats next year, was among those criticizing both moves by the Republican governor. "It's leverage,'' Schmit said of the refusal to vote on the San Pablo casino. If lawmakers ultimately refuse to approve the deal, the tribe can take them to court, she said.

The three other compacts approved by the Legislature involve the Buena Vista Band of Me Wuk Indians in Ione, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe near Needles and Ewiiaapaayp band of Kumeyaay Indians of east San Diego County.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or gkovner@pressdemocrat.com.

Keywords: GAMBLING INDIAN