On September 17, 2014 the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs took testimony on S. 2670, a bill introduced by Senators McCain and Flake. It is designed to prevent the Tohono O’odham from building a casino in Glendale until 2027 when the current state-Indian gaming compact expires.

Because there is a lot of testimony I have broken it into segments. This portion is the testimony of Governor Gregory Mendoza, Chairman of the Gila River Indian Community and Mayor of Glendale Jerry Weiers. It is evident from Mendoza’s testimony that the 16 other tribes that are part of the gaming compact feel betrayed and are very bitter about the actions of the Tohono O’odham (TO). The reason that Governor Mendoza of the Gila River Indian Community and President Diane Enos of the Salt River-Pima-Maricopa Indian Community have taken the lead in opposing the TO’s project is that these two tribes have the resources to do so. They have the support of the other Arizona tribes.

Mayor Jerry Weiers highlighted Proposition 202, the Arizona Gaming Compact, and distributed to members of the committee copies of the original publicity pamphlet distributed to voters in 2002. What is ironical is that the pamphlet used, that promised no new casinos in the Phoenix Metropolitan area was paid for by the Tohono O’odham.

Both men spoke of possible consequences should the TO prevail. Governor Mendoza spoke of the harm that will befall rural tribes and Mayor Weiers spoke of action that could be taken by the Arizona legislature to open up the entire state to non-Indian gaming.

The actions of the Tohono O’odham stink on so many levels:

  • They don’t care that they have destroyed the deep-seated, long-term trust they enjoyed with their sister Arizona tribes.
  • They don’t care that they broke their word and their commitment to keep new casinos out of the Phoenix Metropolitan area.
  • They don’t care if they destroy, single-handedly, the voter approved state gaming compact.
  • They don’t care if their casino is across the street from a high school and becomes a magnet for curious teenagers.
  • They don’t care if they destroy the fabric of neighborhoods with greater 24/7 traffic and spill over crime.
  • They don’t care if the state legislature opens the state up to non-Indian gaming.
  • They don’t care if rural Indian tribes suffer.

Their actions are nothing short of Machiavellian, “the ends justify the means.” Their only concern appears to be enriching themselves at the expense of all around them. They have 3 casinos in the Tucson area estimated to earn $36 million annually. I guess that’s just not enough for them. If they succeed in building the casino the unintended consequences will be felt for many years to come. But that’s OK – as long as they get what they want.

Below is the verbatim transcript of the testimonies of Governor Mendoza and Mayor Weiers:

Governor Mendoza: “Good afternoon Chairman Tester, members of the committee. Thank you for holding this hearing and inviting me to speak in support of the Keep the Promise Act. I want to start by saying that it pains me to advocate against a sister tribe. But this is not a dispute with the Tohono O’odham people, only with the leadership of the Tohono O’odham Nation whose actions jeopardize every tribe in Arizona. Contrary to what Tohono O’odham claims, this is not a fight about market share. It’s about preventing fraud upon tribes, local governments and voters. Tohono O’odham likes to talk about the promises made between their tribe and the federal government in 1986 but this bill is about protecting the promise made to my community and to other tribal governments.

“Our tribes relied upon the actions of Tohono O’odham when we gave up our rights in 2002. While we agreed the Tohono O’odham should get replacement lands under the 1986 law we also strongly believed that Tohono O’odham must abide by the promise and commitments they made to us. In 2002 Arizona tribes had to get approval for our compact from the voters. In order to get this approval we promised the voters that the number of casinos in the Phoenix metro area would not increase until 2027.

“At the same time that Tohono O’odham helped us to win voter approval they also were secretly plotting to build a casino in Phoenix. That casino will be located right across the street from a high school and it’s near homes and churches. This is exactly what we promised the voters would not happen. Tribes like mine gave up rights to build additional casinos. We also agreed to limit on the number of gaming machines allocated to us. We did this in order to get voter approval and to preserve the tribal monopoly on gaming in Arizona and assure that rural tribes benefit from gaming.

“Tohono O’odham doesn’t deny making promises nor do they deny knowing that their sister tribes gave up rights in order to limit the number of casinos in Phoenix. They don’t deny that the compact negotiations would have been vastly different if everyone knew of their plans. Instead they say they’re winning in the courts. There remains a dispute because they refuse to waive their sovereign immunity for claims of fraud. We do not want to attack another tribe’s immunity. That is why the bill merely provides for a temporary restriction on additional casinos in the Phoenix area until the end of the existing compacts. At that point all parties can come together at the table and bargain in good faith. Hopefully my community will be able to regain the rights we gave away.

“The Gila River Indian Community will weather the storm but most tribes in Arizona are not as fortunate. Rural tribes will suffer the most from Tohono O’odham’s fraud. There are six rural tribes that utilize gaming compacts to lease gaming machines to urban tribes. Leasing these machines allows them to benefit from gaming even though their markets can’t support a casino. Each year these tribes receive more than $30 million dollars to provide basic services to their members and the structure of the gaming compacts create markets for a few rural tribes to operate small casinos.

“If gaming happens in Glendale the state legislature will likely eliminate that tribal monopoly. If this happens urban tribes will have no reason to lease gaming machines from rural tribes. Patrons will stop traveling to reservations for gaming and instead visit non-tribal casinos in cities. We have come to Congress because you’re the only entity that can provide swift action to preserve the promises made in 2002. Interior indicates it cannot resolve this matter because Congress through the 1986 law mandates that they take the land into trust for the Tohono O’odham.

“This bill does not set bad precedent. It is common for Congress to pass bills that limit tribal gaming. In this Congress alone, two bills have been enacted placing land into trust for a tribe but prohibiting gaming on those lands. The bill narrowly restricts gaming on the land until 2027 but does not eliminate the uses of the land and there are a number of non-gaming activities that Tohono O’odham could conduct. For all of these reasons I ask that you pass this bill. Thank you.”

Chairman Tester: “Thank you, Governor. Uh, Welcome Mayor Weiers and I would ask you to try to keep it to five minutes because the Senator has another meeting to get to and I want to get to him for questions.”

Mayor Weiers: “I’ll do the best that I can, Sir. Thank you very much. Good afternoon, Chairman Tester, Vice Chairman Brasher and members of the Committee. My name is Jerry Weiers. I am the Mayor of Glendale, a city of 232,000 and the 72nd largest city in the country.

“Before becoming mayor I served eight years in the Arizona legislature. I am here today to discuss my personal views on a casino proposed to be built in my city. I am required to state that my views today do not represent the majority of the body of the council and my views are not the official position of the council.

“Like Senator McCain I supported Arizona Proposition 202, the ballot initiative which gave tribes the exclusive right to conduct gaming. One key aspect of that campaign was the clear promise, repeatedly made to voters by tribes and state officials, that there would be no additional casinos in the Phoenix metro area. When Governor Hull concluded compact negotiations in 2002 with the seventeen tribes she publicly announced that under the compact that there would be, and I quote, ‘no additional casinos in the metropolitan Phoenix area.’ Now here’s a voter pamphlet from the 2002 initiative campaign. It was widely distributed by the seventeen tribes. The pamphlet told voters that under the compact and I quote, ‘There will be no facilities in Phoenix.’ If you look at page six, which I’ve got highlighted here, ah, major funding for this pamphlet was provided by the Tohono O’odham Nation, that I will respectfully refer to as the TO.

“Understandably the public was blind sided when the TO announced in January of 2009 that it was going to open a Las Vegas style casino on a 54 acre parcel within our city. At that time I was serving in the Arizona legislature and I met with TO Chairman Norris and I expressed my grave concerns with gambling within our city. The council immediately passed a resolution opposing the casino because it would harm our residents and our way of life.

“Recently the city council voted 4 to 3 repeal the 2009 resolution opposing that casino. But this was done only after the Interior Department had already decided to grant a casino reservation on that parcel. We had no real choice. We could continue to fight and hope for action from this body or give up. It’s frustrating to be a city of our size and have no voice on gambling pushed by a tribal government that’s more than a hundred miles away. The public has no right to object to gambling because of the narrow exception in the 1988 Indian Regulatory Gaming Act the TO is using, and gives Interior absolutely no authority to stop gambling even if it knows the adverse impact to nearby neighborhoods, churches and a public school across the street.

“Since the Interior has no authority to stop gambling it has no reason to ask the public for comments or investigate adverse impacts. This is the polar opposite to the two part exception in IGRA which is typically used for off reservation casinos. It requires that the Interior prepare for an environmental impact statement and investigate in great detail adverse impacts that a casino may cause. What’s more, for gambling to be allowed, the Secretary must determine on the record, and I quote, ‘would not be detrimental to the surrounding community.’ And most importantly, the state’s governor has the right to veto any casino project regardless of the Secretary’s decision.

“But in our case, the public has no say. The state legislature has no say. Our governor has no say and the Interior has no authority to stop it. For us this means the largest tribal casino in the history of the state may operate on a 54 acre island in the middle of the Phoenix metro area without anyone investigating and addressing the adverse environmental and social impacts it will cause and without any federal, state or local official deciding that it can safely operate in the public’s interest.

“What’s more, my city may not be the last. Our sister cities realize that unless Congress acts, they may be next. Under the 1986 Gila Bend Act, TO claims that it can create new reservation land on more than 6,000 acres. They also claim the right to operate a total of four new casinos in the Phoenix metro area. If Congress does not act the entire Phoenix metropolitan area must be prepared for more off reservation casinos. That is why many mayors and city councilmembers have signed a letter asking the Congress to enact the Keep the Promise Act.

“As a former state legislator I know that if gambling happens in Glendale there will be a strong effort in the state legislature to authorize non-Indian gaming in all of Arizona and that will have a devastating effect on all the tribes. I urge this committee to move the Keep the Promise Act. The bill is about preserving the promises made by tribes to voters protecting Phoenix metro cities from having unwanted gambling within their borders. Thank you, Mr. Tester. I’ll be happy to answer any questions.”

Chairman Tester: “Thank you Mayor Weiers.

© Joyce Clark, 2014


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