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House committee OKs bill to block Tohono O’odham casino in Glendale

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WASHINGTON – A House committee gave overwhelming approval Wednesday to a bill that would block development of a Tohono O’odham casino on land the tribe bought inside Glendale.

The bill would reverse years of failed legal challenges to the project, which opponents say violates a 2002 agreement among tribes not to build new casinos in the metropolitan Phoenix area.

The “Keep the Promise Act of 2013″ would prohibit new gaming in the metro area, specifically on the Glendale land, until 2027.

The bill‘s backers called its passage “critical,” noting a judge’s approval this summer that construction on the Glendale could proceed.

“I simply believe gaming should be prohibited on lands in Glendale,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, a co-sponsor of the bill and a member of the House Natural Resources Committee that voted 35-5 for the bill. It now moves to the full House for consideration.

But casino supporters said both the courts and the public think there should be gaming in Glendale.

“The tired claims used to validate votes for this bill have been reviewed and rejected multiple times by the courts and federal agencies,” Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris said in a statement Wednesday.

“There is overwhelming public support for this project and the nation will continue to fight to bring thousands of new jobs and positive economic development to Arizona,” his statement said.

The tribe got the Glendale land under the Gila River Bend Indian Reservations Replacement Act, which let the Tohono O’odham replace almost 10,000 acres of reservation lands that were flooded by the construction of a dam.

The tribe bought a parcel of Maricopa County land completely surrounded by Glendale – a “county island” – then successfully petitioned the federal government to have it declared reservation land, clearing the way for a casino.

Critics said that violated an agreement tribes had made to limit gaming in the metro area, in an effort to win voter approval of Proposition 202 that let the state enter into gaming compacts with individual tribes. That proposition passed in 2002.

“When you have a party, and they deal in bad faith, they have to be held accountable,” said Gosar, who said the Tohono O’odham broke the 2002 agreement.

The government has a right to “intercede in this transaction” because not doing so “would send the whole (gaming) compact into tailspin,” Gosar said at the committee meeting.

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said that by “stepping in unilaterally” with the bill, the government would “put all Indian gaming compacts at risk.”

“Eleven administration hearings and judicial decisions have ruled” for the right of the Tohono O’odham to build the casino, he said.

“This law would undo what the courts have said,” Grijalva said.

Other tribes countered that it was the Tohono O’odham plan that put future gaming compacts at risk, not Wednesday’s vote.

“This bill protects the credibility of Arizona tribes who will have to negotiate and obtain voter approval for the future of tribal gaming in just a decade,” said Gila River Indian Community Gov. Gregory Mendoza in a statement. It said the action “prevents tribes from voiding their commitments and promises made to limit gaming in the metropolitan areas.”

Grijalva tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to exempt gaming compacts currently in effect. That failed on a voice vote.

One commitee member who agreed with Grijalva called the bill “a very bad precedent.”

Besides endangering “about 6,000 construction jobs” that the casino would bring, Rep. Tom Tom McClintock, R-Calif., pointed to the land replacement agreement under the 1986 Gila River Bend Indian Reservations Replacement Act.

“This bill would retroactively reverse that settlement,” he said.

In addition to Gosar, sponsors on the bill include Arizona Reps. Trent Franks, R-Glendale; Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff; David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills; and Matt Salmon, R-Mesa.