Tribal Casino Deals Quickly, Quietly Sealed By Governor Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown, seen at a Capitol event in April 2015, has negotiated two new Indian gaming compacts in just three weeks. (John Myers/KQED)

In the long and contentious history of Indian gaming in California, tribal leaders think they may have finally found a governor in Jerry Brown who has a good sense of both them and their multibillion-dollar industry.

"I think he's an honest man and an individual who certainly lives up to his word," said Vincent Armenta, chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, as he traveled to Sacramento Tuesday in support of a new gaming compact between the tribe and the state.

The agreement -- one of two that have sped through the state Capitol in just the last three weeks -- is yet another signal to some that while previous governors seemed to question whether tribal gaming should even exist, Brown has signaled that he's simply searching for ways in which tribes and local communities can co-exist.

"Understanding and respecting tribal government has been a good starting point for Gov. Brown," said Jerome Encinas, a lobbyist who has represented several of the state's gaming tribes over the years.

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The governor has quietly negotiated the recent deals with little or no controversy, a far cry from his predecessors. Brown inherited decades of complex and somewhat conflicting priorities when it came to the state's role in carrying out federal law that authorized tribal gaming in 1988.

He also inherited the legacy of political scars inflicted during the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"It's time for them to pay their fair share," Schwarzenegger said in a memorable TV ad during a 2003 recall campaign that led to him replacing then-Gov. Gray Davis. Once in office, the Republican governor invoked a doctrine that generally linked tribal casino agreements to a share of the profits being handed over to help balance the beleaguered state budget.

"It was very hurtful," said lobbyist Encinas. "The prior administration was kind of, 'This is what you're going to take, and that's it.' "

With the Schwarzenegger casino deals being ruled illegal by the federal courts in 2011, and with tribes that were part of the original 1999 agreements now having just four years left before those agreements expire, it's a busy time in the governor's office.

"I know that you all are very busy negotiating multiple compact agreements," said state Sen. Isadore Hall, D-Compton, at the Aug. 25 hearing to consider Brown's new agreement with the United Auburn Indian Community of Placer County.

That tribe owns what may be the state's most profitable casino, Thunder Valley Resort, and signed an amended compact with the governor on Aug. 14. In exchange for about 850 new slot machines and a new 26-year contract, the tribe agreed to boost its payments to the fund that shares revenues with non-gaming tribes to some $18 million a year.

The new agreement also redirects money paid into the state's general fund to local transportation projects. The compact is also longer than ones signed by previous governors -- running until 2041.

Few gaming proposals have been less controversial. Once the deal was signed, it was formally ratified by both houses of the Legislature in just 17 days.

"I don't see anything not to love about this thing," said state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, at the Aug. 25 hearing.

Part of the changing dynamic may be attributable to the fact that tribal gaming has become a relatively accepted part of the California experience.  There are now 60 operating Indian casinos in the state, more than any state in the nation, and the industry generates revenues of more than $7 billion, according to the most recent federal report.

"I think the governor has a great deal of respect for the tribes within the state," said Joe Dhillon, Brown's top tribal negotiator. "And I think that's created the kind of relationship that allows us to work together, to further the tribes' interests as well as the people of California."

Brown's only setbacks have come in his agreements for tribal casinos on land that wasn't originally designated as a reservation. Last fall, his agreement with the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians was rejected via a statewide referendum, Proposition 48. A second non-reservation project in Yuba County has never come up for a vote in the Legislature.

Still, tribal officials give the governor credit for taking the time to understand both where they've been, and what's at stake.

"The governor agrees that Indian gaming was brought to the state of California to, number one, mainly benefit Native Americans and Native American tribes," said Santa Ynez chairman Armenta. "We have successfully negotiated that, and proved that."