California Gov. signs new gaming compacts with two tribes; legal dispute with other five still on

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Monday that he has signed new tribal gaming compacts between the State of California and the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians of California and the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe. The announcement comes as five other California tribesincluding two based in Mendocino and Lake counties, are locked in a legal dispute with Gov. Newsom’s office over renewing their gambling compacts with the state.

The newly signed compacts are set to reflect a mutual commitment “to a respectful government-to-government relationship,” as well as the promotion of tribal economic development and self-sufficiency.

Their terms intend to respect the parties’ interest in improving the quality of life of tribal members through a framework that generates revenue for governmental programs while, at the same time, “fairly regulates gaming activities” and affords patron and employee protections.

Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians' Twin Pine Casino and Hotel in Middletown

The compacts are the culmination of a lengthy negotiation process between all parties and careful consideration of requirements under the Indian Gaming Regulatory ActNinth Circuit Court of Appeals precedent, and technical guidance, as well as prior compact approvals and procedures issued by the United States Department of the Interior.

According to the Governor’s office, the compacts will support tribal investment in expanded services, local jurisdictions, and non-profit and civic organizations for improved fire and emergency medical services, law enforcement, public transit, education, among other improvements.

The compacts also reflect “a commitment by the tribes” to support the Revenue Sharing Trust Fund and the Tribal Nation Grant Fund “so that the economic benefits of gaming extend to all tribal governments in California.”

Both tribes, by signing the compacts, have entered into a “tribal-state class III gaming compact” pursuant to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The agreements build upon existing compacts signed by the tribes and the state in 1999.

Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe's Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino in Lemoore

The Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians currently operates the Twin Pine Casino and Hotel in Middletown, pursuant to the 1999 compact. The venue features 25,000 square feet of gaming space with over 500 machines and table games offerings. It also has a hotel with over 59 rooms, including 3 luxury suites, and dining and entertainment offerings.

Meanwhile, the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe operates the Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino in Lemoorewhich first opened as Southgate Bingo Palace in 1983. The tribe took over operation of the bingo hall in 1994 and expanded its offerings, and renamed it to its current title in 2005.

The venue features a hotel with four-star accommodations, spa, pool and restaurants. In terms of its casino, the property features 145,000 square feet of gaming space with over 2,000 slot and video games, classic slots and a high-limit room. The venue also offers 21 table games, entertainment options and space for groups and meetings.

legal dispute

While those two tribes have secured more years of gaming business in the state, other five tribes could see the slot machines at their casinos unplugged as soon as April 1 if they are unable to reach some sort of accommodation, The Press Democrat reports.

One of those tribes is Robinson Rancheria in Nice, about 75 miles north of Santa Rosa. The casino is owned by a band of Pomo, who had to close for 125 days during the pandemic. Another timeout would affect many of the tribe’s social programs, Beniakem Cromwell, the Robinson Rancheria chairman said. Robinson Rancheria is one of the poorest communities in one of the poorest counties in California.

The lawsuit at the heart of the conflict has to do with compacts that 61 tribal nations reached with Gov. Gray Davis in 1999. Those contracts were to renew in December 2020, but an automatic 18-month extension kicked in. The deadline is now June 30.

Other tribes, like Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which signed its compact in 2012, are not immediately affected. Most of the tribes with 1999 compacts have already entered new agreements, or signaled a willingness to do so.

But five — Robinson Rancheria, the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians in Mendocino County, the Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians (based in Tuolumne County), Blue Lake Rancheria (Humboldt County) and the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe (San Bernardino County) have objected to a number of provisions the state sought to add to the compacts.

Those five tribes sued in a case commonly referenced as Chicken Ranch Rancheria v. Gavin Newsom, insisting the new provisions violate the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). The suit also argues that the state did not bargain in good faith.

The new provisions include enforcing spousal and child support orders, as well as state laws, relative to the environment, minimum wage anti-discrimination and other elements of tort law and the labor code. The tribal plaintiffs also want to modify the trust fund, established in 1999, that redistributes a portion of revenue from tribes that own casinos to those that don’t.

The case could set an important precedent for Indian casinos all over California. A number of tribes have pending negotiations over their gaming compacts. And even those that have already signed agreements would probably be able to demand a return to the bargaining table if the plaintiffs are successful in Chicken Ranch v. Newsom. Presumably, that would include the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe and the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indiansthe latest California nations to secure state compacts.

The two sides argued before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Dec. 9. If a ruling comes after April 15 (and barring an extension), the casinos will have to cease Class III gaming operations, including slot machines.

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