House attempting to halt Tohono casino in Glendale

PHOENIX — The U.S. House is making another bid to block the Tohono O'odham Nation from building a casino on land it owns near the University of Phoenix Stadium on the edge of Glendale.

On a 35-5 vote, the Natural Resources Committee approved legislation this week that would let the tribe keep the land it purchased in 2003 — a year after Arizona voters approved a measure giving tribes the exclusive right to operate casinos in exchange for a share of the profits. And it would not block the Tohono from having the land made part of the reservation.

But HR 1410 would bar until 2027 any gaming on any lands that were not part of a reservation at the time those compacts were approved, and that effectively would kill the plans for the $550 million complex anchored by a casino and hotel.

The vote drew sharp criticism Thursday from tribal Chairman Ned Norris Jr. In a prepared statement, he said panel members “chose politics over the facts.”

Norris also said proponents made “multiple misleading and outrageous statements.” “That includes one by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., that failure to approve this law means a dangerous precedent would be set leading to the expansion of off-reservation casinos in Arizona and in other states.”

By contrast, the Tohono argue that the law which is allowing them to build the casino — the one the legislation Gosar wants seeks to alter — applies to them and them only. The tribe says that makes invalid any argument that construction of the casino in Glendale would set precedents elsewhere.

Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, the only other Arizonan on the panel, voted against the measure.

There likely are enough votes for HR 1410 to clear the House. A similar measure gained House approval last year on a 343-78 vote.

But that legislation did not even get a hearing in the Senate.

And even if senators do go along, prospects for the measure likely are bleak if the bill were to reach the White House: In testimony earlier this year, Michael Black, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Obama administration's Department of the Interior, testified in opposition to HR 1410.

Black pointed out that it was Congress itself which in 1986 authorized the Tohono O'odham to purchase new lands in Maricopa, Pinal or Pima counties and have it become part of the reservation. That settled a claim brought after a federal dam project flooded the tribe's San Lucy District near Gila Bend.

“The (Interior) Department cannot support legislation that specifically impacts an agreement so long after the fact,” Black testified.

And if there was any doubt about the fate of such a bill, Black told lawmakers that his agency sees HR 1410 as establishing a bad precedent by singling out particular tribes.

"The administration has consistently held the position that fair and equal application of our laws toward all tribes is essential to upholding the United States' nation-to-nation relationship with Indian tribes,'' he said.

Central to the battle is the conflict between what voters were told in 2002 and what was actually in the ballot measure.

The understanding was that there would be no new casinos in the Phoenix area. And while the Tohono were allowed to build another casino, the presumption was that would be somewhere in Pima County.

That was backed up by language which said gaming is permitted only on existing reservations.

But there also was language which said gaming could be conducted on lands acquired later if they were “taken into trust as part of a settlement of a land claim.''

Even U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell, asked by foes of the casino to block it, said the land the Tohono acquired in 2003 was part of such a land claim. And he rejected arguments that the compact barred construction of a casino on the site, saying he is bound by what the language of what voters approved, language which had been negotiated between the tribes and the state.

Other legal bids to block the casino also have proven fruitless, though several are on appeal. That has forced foes to try the alternate route of effectively amending the original 1986 law.

Gosar, in urging colleagues to support HR 1410, said he believes otherwise.

“My support for the Keep the Promise Act is about protecting the integrity of my state's gaming compact and ultimately the future of gaming in Arizona,'' he said.

Gosar also suggested the nation was not playing fair, pointing out the tribe acquired the site in 2003 under a corporate name. It was not until 2009 the tribe disclosed the true ownership — or the plans for the casino — when it formally sought reservation status for the parcel.