Lawmakers approve bill to let Glendale annex Tohono O'odham land - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Lawmakers approve bill to let Glendale annex Tohono O'odham land

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Posted: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 4:02 pm | Updated: 2:59 pm, Wed Jan 26, 2011.

With only one Republican opposed, the state House voted Tuesday to let Glendale annex land now owned by the Tohono O'odham Nation in a last-ditch bid to prevent the tribe from building a casino there.

The 39-21 vote came over the objections of Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who said the measure unfairly - and he believes illegally - tramples the rights of the tribe to decide how best to use its private property. He predicted the measure is headed to court if it gets Senate approval and the anticipated signature of Gov. Jan Brewer.

But Rep. Jerry Weiers, R-Glendale, said the extraordinary law is needed to protect the property rights of other Glendale residents who never anticipated that a casino could be built on the city's edge.

As crafted, HB 2534 would allow the Glendale City Council to immediately annex the property, with or without the consent of the tribe.

Weiers is working against the clock.

A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments next month in litigation over whether the U.S. Department of Interior broke the law when it gave permission last year for the Tohono O'odham tribe, which bought 135 acres near the new Arizona Cardinals stadium in 2003, to have 53 acres of that made part of the reservation. That reservation status is a precursor to allowing the tribe to build a casino.

With Farnsworth siding with Democrats, though, the legislation could not get the necessary two-thirds vote of the House to make the law effective immediately on the governor's signature.

That means the soonest the bill could become law is 90 days after the end of the regular legislative session. And lawmakers are likely to be at the Capitol through at least April.

Weiers said, though, he hopes the federal judge hearing the case will take the legislative vote into account when deciding whether to give reservation status to those 53 acres.

The legislation is the latest battle over expansion of tribal gaming.

A 2002 voter-approved measure gave tribes the exclusive right to operate casinos in Arizona. In exchange, the measure confined gambling to reservations and the tribes agreed to give the state a share of the profits.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Bundgaard, R-Peoria, said voters were given to understand that the limits on gaming applied to reservations existing on that date.

"The Tohono O'odham was part of the 17 tribes who agreed to this compact," Bundgaard said. "They're trying to go around that and put another casino into a metropolitan area."

Attorneys for the Tohono, however, cite a little-noticed provision in the law which permits gaming on certain lands acquired after the 2002 vote.

In this case, the tribe was given specific federal permission by Congress in 1986 to buy land away from its main reservation in southern Arizona as compensation for about 10,000 acres near Gila Bend flooded by a federal dam project. More to the point, that law permits the Tohono to petition to have the new lands made part of its reservation.

The main restriction was that these lands could not be within the limits of any city.

Right now the bid for reservation status is tied up in federal court, with challenges by both Glendale and the Gila River Indian Community which currently has the closest casino to the area.

This legislation was designed to beat the clock, letting Glendale annex the land over tribal objections. That would allow the tribe to continue with plans for a resort and shopping area but preclude the casino.

Farnsworth said he found the whole measure disturbing, starting with setting the precedent, in this one instance, of letting a city annex property even when the landowners do not want to be included.

"Not a single person in this state has been treated under that kind of provision," he said. "And it only applies to them."

Farnsworth also said he believes the measure runs afoul of a 2008 voter-approved measure which bars governments from altering land-use rules without compensating property owners.

The Gilbert lawmaker stressed he does not support gaming and wishes the tribe would withdraw its request. But Farnsworth, who is an attorney, said the tribe is exercising its legal rights.

"We cannot punish somebody when they have followed the law," he said. "That's called tyranny."

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