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House passes bill to block Tohono O’odham casino in Glendale

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WASHINGTON – The House Tuesday passed a bill to stop the development of a tribal casino in Glendale, a move supporters said is needed to keep Arizona from sliding in to a “full-scale gaming state.”

But opponents said the bill is little more than an attempt by other tribes in the state to protect their casino market from encroachment by the Tohono O’odham Nation, which has proposed the Glendale casino.

They predicted that the bill, which passed on a voice vote Tuesday in the face of little opposition, would face the same fate as a similar measure that passed the House last year but died in the Senate.

“The nation will continue to fight this transparent and desperate attempt to change the rules on behalf of a few wealthy East Valley tribes,” Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said in a prepared statement after the vote.

“We remain committed to creating jobs and opportunity in the West Valley and we trust this dangerous legislation will fail in the Senate,” his statement said.

The tribe’s casino has won administrative challenges and overcome several lawsuits from opponents, who claimed that the Tohono O’odham plan violates a 2002 voter-approved agreement between the state and tribes that called for a limit on new casinos in the Phoenix area.

In the most recent ruling, a U.S. District Court in June ruled that Proposition 202, the voter-approved agreement, did not block casinos in the Phoenix area.

The Keep the Promise Act of 2013 that passed the House Tuesday would enforce a ban on new casinos on tribal land in the metro Phoenix area until 2027 -the same year Proposition 202 is scheduled to expire.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, and the lead sponsor of the bill, said it would block “a Las Vegas-style casino in the Phoenix metro area” on land that is part of the Tohono O’odham reservation, even though it is surrounded by the city of Glendale. Because the land is completely disconnected from the tribe’s main reservation, the bill’s supporters say the Glendale site would essentially be an off-reservation casino for the Tohono O’odham.

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, called Franks’ bill an example of Congress overriding the courts and interjecting itself into an agreement made by the state and the tribe. This would be the first time that Congress had passed legislation interfering with an agreement of this kind, and it would set a dangerous precedent, said Grijalva, the only person to speak against the bill on the House floor Tuesday.

“This is about Congress not shortcutting judicial decisions that have been made over the course of the last five years in which the O’odham Nation has prevailed in every one,” Grijalva said.

Both Grijalva and the tribe lauded the casino’s potential economic benefits. The Tohono O’odham said in a press release Tuesday that the casino would create 3,000 permanent jobs, in addition to construction jobs as the casino is being built.

But Franks criticized the tribe for releasing job estimates without describing how they came up with those numbers. He called the supporters predictions of economic benefits from the casino were “woefully misinformed at best and shamefully dishonest at worst.”

While Grijalva warned about the precedent that could be set by congressional intervention, the bill’s supporters argued that not stepping in would also set the wrong precedent.

If the Tohono O’odham open a casino in the Phoenix area, other tribes will, too, said Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills. If Congress allows the casino to be built in Glendale, he said, Arizona would quickly become “a full-scale gaming state.”