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Posted Nov 18, 2011, 9:38 am
WASHINGTON — A House committee Thursday approved a bill to block a planned Tohono O’odham casino in Glendale, the latest in three years of so–far unsuccessful legislative and legal battles to stop the project.
Opponents said the bill, which passed the House Natural Resources Committee 32–11, would break a contract between the United States and the tribe, making the federal government vulnerable to extensive lawsuits as a result.
“It’s in litigation,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D–Tucson. “We’re pre–empting the courts. We’re pre–empting federal law.”
But supporters of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, say inaction would destroy a compact between the Indian nations and Arizona that allows gaming in the state – or at least harm tribes’ bargaining power when gaming laws are revised again.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, noted that the Tohono O’odham were working to acquire the Glendale land where they now want to locate the casino while simultaneously promoting a proposition that limited casinos in Phoenix.
“It was insider trading,” he said. “That’s as good as it gets.”
The measure will now head to the full House for consideration.
The Tohono O’odham acquired the Glendale land after federal dams flooded nearly 10,000 acres of reservation land in the early 1980s. As compensation, Congress passed the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act, which let the nation purchase replacement land and possibly designate it as part of the reservation.
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Under that deal, the Tohono O’odham bought 135 acres in Glendale in 2003. They asked the Interior Department to take 54 acres of that area into trust, creating reservation land more than 100 miles away from the tribe’s Connecticut–size reservation on the Arizona–Mexico border.
When the tribe announced plans for a casino complex on the land, it sparked lawsuits from state and local governments and opposing tribes. But state and federal courts have ruled in the Tohono O’odham’s favor.
In October, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the tribe’s application to take the land into trust. Earlier this year, a federal district court also approved the application and blocked Glendale from annexing the plot.
Because all Indian gaming requires an agreement with the state in which a casino is located, the Arizona government and tribes agreed to a compact that was passed by voters in 2002 – a year before the Tohono O’odham bought the Glendale parcel. The compact limited the number of casinos in the Phoenix metro area to seven, the current amount.
The Interior Department has said the proposed casino does not violate the compact because there is an exception for reservation lands created by an act of Congress, which applies to the Tohono O’odham land.
Grijalva also charged that by changing the Gila Bend land replacement act, Franks’ bill runs the risk of unraveling other parts of the act, such as an agreement between the Tohono O’odham and the federal government over water rights that could leave the U.S. vulnerable to lawsuits.
But a Washington attorney who represents another Arizona tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, said Grijalva’s claim does not stand up because the Tohono O’odham would not be owed water–use rights.
“It is not a water settlement,” Donald Pongrace said of the 1986 act. “It’s an affront to a water settlement.”