New Era in Local, Tribal Government Cooperation

Gambling is often viewed as an up or down proposition: Not just whether you win or lose, but whether you’re for gaming or you’re against it.

The reality is that California voters have spoken and tribal gaming is here to stay. The real question is this: How do we do a better job of working together to manage the impacts of gaming and preserve the economic benefits that tribal gaming has brought to California’s tribes?

The new gaming compacts recently negotiated between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration and five gaming tribes, including the United Auburn (Thunder Valley Casino) and Rumsey bands (Cache Creek Casino & Resort), set an important new direction for gaming in California and offer a constructive path for state and local government cooperation with sovereign tribal governments.

Some point to new revenues that the compacts will provide to state and local government as the most important issue. It is true that the compacts will provide necessary funds for important transportation projects and will help local governments provide necessary services such as public safety. But the money is only a small part of why the compacts are important. Fundamentally, the new gaming compacts provide a framework for balancing tribal governments’ sovereignty rights with state and local governments’ responsibility to their constituents.

Everyone has heard the complaints about unintended consequences of gaming that never get addressed: Increased traffic, lack of affordable housing, the “growth catalyst” effect around casinos, overall swelling of enrollment at schools and stress on critical public services are just a few of the concerns raised about gaming impacts. The compacts that have until now governed tribal gaming around California have not adequately addressed any of these real-world impacts that local government officials confront. The new compacts negotiated between the Schwarzenegger administration and the tribes offer a new partnership between local government and tribal governments — they protect affected communities, mitigate off-reservation impacts, including traffic and other planning issues, and provide a sensible framework to meet larger public interests.

These compacts require a tribal environmental impact report for new gaming-related projects that could cause off-reservation impacts. These reports would detail significant environmental effects, mitigation plans and project alternatives. The compacts then require that agreements be reached between tribes and affected communities for off-reservation mitigation and public-service responsibilities, including law enforcement provided by local governments. Because the agreements are enforceable through binding arbitration of disputes between the tribes and local government, both sides have every incentive to put forth reasonable proposals and conditions to address these issues. Finally, the agreements are enforceable in court.

The new compacts will also protect the workers and patrons of casinos by applying local health and safety standards in such areas as fire protection and inspection, food inspection, rescue/ambulance and police services. Other provisions include building-code compliance with state standards to ensure the safety of patrons and workers, slot machine inspection and audits, and tort law compliance in relation to patron injury.

The new compacts represent an important new way of doing business between the tribes that have signed on and state and local government. These compacts recognize that it is in the interest of all of these governments to work together for the benefit of all Californians.

It is our hope that more tribes will endorse the framework of greater collaboration embraced by these new compacts. The next step is for the Legislature to ratify the compacts (a vote on AB687 is scheduled for today) as a new chapter in how state and local government can work more effectively with tribal governments across California.

Mike McGowan is chairman of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors as well as chairman of the Tribal Gaming Task Force for the California State Association of Counties.