DiFi has new anti-casino bill — with tribe’s support

feinstein.jpgU.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., today introduced a bill to limit the size and scope of (rather than completely shut down) the San Pablo Lytton Casino — a bill that’s supported not only by those who’d opposed the expansion all along but also by the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians.

That means the bill — which apparently nobody opposes — seems poised to end years of contentious debate over Indian gaming in the Bay Area.

In a nutshell, it’ll limit the Lytton Band to the parimutuel, Class II gaming — in which the house takes a flat cut of the pot and winners share the rest of what’s wagered — that it has now, essentially foreclosing its ability to negotiate a compact with the state for more lucrative house-banked, Nevada-style slot machines. It’ll also prevent them from expanding the casino’s physical plant — as they’d once so controversially proposed — 15 minutes north of Oakland along Interstate 80, at San Pablo Avenue and San Pablo Dam Road.

Says Lytton Band chairwoman Margie Mejia: “Although it has been a difficult process for us all, Senator Feinstein’s legislation will allow us to operate the casino for the long-term without the threat of closure. Passage of the legislation will be positive news for our tribal members, the employees who work at Casino San Pablo and the City of San Pablo — all of whom will benefit from a ‘hand up rather than a hand out.’ Senator Feinstein is to be commended for her leadership in identifying and pursuing a workable situation for everyone in the East Bay.”

hancock.jpgSays Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, long an outspoken foe of the casino’s expansion: “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to put it behind us, and it will really save the Bay Area from a massive Las Vegas-style casino — the casino will continue as it is and bring revenue to the tribe and to the City of San Pablo. … It really is the best we can do, and I’m very grateful to the senator for stepping up to the plate and getting everyone to agree to this.”

Lots more backstory and detail after the jump …

Feinstein’s bill would repeal part of a 2000 amendment by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, that “backdated” the Casino San Pablo card room and its nine-acre tract’s placement in trust for the tribe so it was deemed to have happened before Oct. 17, 1988 — the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act‘s effective date, after which gaming on newly acquired land requires rigorous bureaucratic review.

The Lytton Band and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in August 2004 had agreed on a 2,500-slot-machine casino from which the state, county and city would share 25 percent of the revenue. But concerns of traffic, gambling addiction and other possible problems kindled community opposition; even Miller said the plan was “inappropriately sized for the local community and far exceeds what was originally proposed and what was originally expected by all parties involved.” Conceding the Legislature wouldn’t ratify it, the tribe backed off and instead installed more than 1,000 electronic bingo terminals that look and play much like slot machines, but are permitted without a compact.

Feinstein in the 109th Congress had floated S.113, which would’ve forbade all gaming on the site; it was passed out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, but found an uphill battle on the floor and died there. Her new bill will allow the tribe to continue its Class II gaming but will require that it undergo the rigorous federal bureaucratic process, gathering public input and gaining approval from both the governor’s office and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, before it could upgrade to Class III games. No California tribe has ever completed that process.

The new bill also would forbid the tribe from expanding its building from its current one-story, 71,000-square-foot size to two stories and 342,000 square feet, as proposed in early 2005. (Actually, the original plan was three stories and 600,000 with a nightclub, hotel, arcade, and entertainment, meeting or banquet halls; the tribe had scaled that plan back after community protests.)

Feinstein issued a news release calling it “a win-win” situation

“By effectively foreclosing the possibility of a major expansion of the Lytton’s San Pablo casino, this legislation ensures that a major Nevada-style casino will not be built in the Bay Area in the near future,” she said. “It closes a loophole which opened the door for that to happen — without the appropriate federal oversight required for tribal casinos — in a community where opposition is deep and strong. I appreciate the efforts of the local community in helping to fashion a legislative solution that works for everyone involved. I especially want to thank Assemblywoman Loni Hancock for her leadership on this issue.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.