Depending on whom you believe, plans for a new tribal casino alongside Highway 99 in Madera County are either a classic case of making lemonade from lemons -- or just a sour deal all the way around.
One thing's for sure: There's a lot riding on what happens Nov. 4, when voters are asked in Proposition 48 to either approve or overrule the state's decision to allow the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to build an off-reservation casino outside the city of Madera.
“We would hope that the voters of California understand that this is a local decision,” said Maryann McGovran, vice chair of the North Fork tribe.
The long, twisted path of this casino project -- a large-scale facility with as many as 2,000 slot machines and eventually a hotel -- dates back at least a decade. The tribe, though, points out that the struggles actually began with the federal government's 1987 restoration of its legal status -- status that came with the only land ever given to the North Fork people set aside for just a handful of members, leaving the rest of the tribe without a reservation.
"They never said, 'Here's land in trust,'" McGovran said. "That never happened."
In gambling parlance, one could say that winning Interior Department approval was like hitting the rare straight flush in poker: The North Fork Mono got permission to build through a two-part determination. That process requires federal officials to find that a project is in a tribe's best interests and not detrimental to the surrounding community. Only a handful of tribes nationwide have ever won such a ruling.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who then had to concur with the decision, did so in 2012. And after a somewhat rocky reception in the Legislature -- with opposition by some of California's most politically powerful gaming tribes -- North Fork's casino compact was formally ratified in June 2013.
Eleven days later, longtime tribal gaming critic Cheryl Schmit filed a referendum to force an up-or-down vote on the North Fork casino. That referendum is now Proposition 48.
"This is a statewide issue," says Schmit, the leader of the citizen's group, Stand Up for California. "If it happens here [in Madera County], it's going to happen elsewhere."
The "it" is off-reservation gaming. The North Fork casino would be the first in California under the federal two-part determination process. Another tribe, the Enterprise Rancheria of Maidu Indians, has also cleared all of its hurdles with the feds and the governor. But the clamor over the North Fork proposal has stalled Enterprise's plans for a Yuba County casino in the Legislature.
Schmit, the official proponent of Prop. 48, argues that there are two reasons the North Fork project would set a precedent. First, she believes the Obama administration has signaled a willingness to approve more off-reservation proposals, and many of those are from California. Second, she believes more Nevada gaming corporations are willing to step up and finance these projects in hopes of a big payout from tribes in the future.
But would Brown go along? The governor voiced skepticism about future projects when he agreed to the North Fork casino.
"I expect," wrote Brown in his August 2012 letter approving the casino compact, "there will be few requests from other tribes that will present the same kind of exceptional circumstances to support a similar expansion of tribal gaming land."
North Fork casino supporters point to two other parts of the deal: agreements with local governments and even a Humboldt County tribe to provide cash payments from the casino's profits (the Wiyot Tribe Humboldt, in exchange, has given up plans for a casino on its environmentally sensitive reservation), and payments into the state's revenue sharing fund for nongaming tribes.
Because Prop. 48 is a referendum, the usual roles of the campaigns are reversed: Voters who think Brown and the Legislature were correct in approving the casino cast a "yes" ballot, while those who hope to block the project would vote "no."
The No on 48 campaign has raised more than $11 million this year to kill the casino plan, including a $5.4 million contribution on Tuesday from one of North Fork’s neighboring tribes, Table Mountain Rancheria. They, and the nearby Picayune Rancheria of Chuckchansi Indians, both have their own big casinos, and they say another gaming palace will cut into the region’s existing gambling business.
But for all the bluster of the campaign, the bottom line is that the North Fork project could ultimately be decided in court.
If voters say yes to Prop. 48 and thus approve the casino, opponents are likely to keep pursuing lawsuits challenging everything from the project's land rights to its environmental impact.
If voters reject Prop. 48, some believe the Obama administration can overrule the referendum and unilaterally impose the casino compact -- Brown himself suggested as much in a 2013 television interview. The governor's tribal advisors have said such action could come without the lucrative side deals struck with the North Fork tribe as mitigation.
And one historical note: A defeat of Prop 48 would be the first time California voters have ever rejected Indian gaming on a statewide ballot.