Legislature fast-tracks Rohnert Park casino deal
Published: Friday, April 27, 2012 at 7:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 27, 2012 at 7:14 p.m.
The agreement to allow the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to open a 3,000-slot machine casino on the northwest edge of Rohnert Park gets its first hearing at the state Legislature Tuesday, much sooner than many observers expected.
The Senate Governmental Organization committee will take public testimony and hear analysis of the tribe’s written agreement with the state — called a compact — that Gov. Jerry Brown signed March 27. The committee will not vote on the compact.
Officials with Station Casinos, the Las Vegas company bankrolling the casino, said Friday that they and tribal representatives will attend the hearing.
The 274-page compact, which the Legislature and the federal Department of the Interior must ratify, outlines the conditions under which the tribe may operate the casino and steps it must take before starting the project. Those include finalizing agreements with the county and Rohnert Park about how the tribe will financially address casino impacts.
When Brown signed the compact March 30, most observers said it would take months before the process reached the point where the Legislature would vote. Now, the talk in Sacramento is that a vote could take place as soon as next week.
“I think it’s moving shockingly fast,” said state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa. “There are still a number of issues I would like to see worked out locally before I support it.”
The development surprised and angered casino opponents who said they wanted more time to marshal their forces to convince legislators to reject or, at least, amend the compact.
“How do you politically organize if people don’t know about it,” said Chip Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor who has fought the casino plan for nearly a decade.
“It’s legal but it’s totally unethical,” he said of the speed and method of the Legislature’s process.
The senate committee hearing is called an “informational” hearing. A similar hearing will be held by the counterpart Assembly committee. It would then go to each body for a floor vote, needing two-thirds majorities to pass.
The Assembly committee is chaired by Isidore Hall, D-Los Angeles, who introduced the bill, AB 517, that put the compact before the Legislature for discussion. Initially the compact was “attached” to a bill Hall previously introduced about alcohol licenses and returning unopened beer.
By Friday, in a legal but often criticized practice known as “gut and amend,” all the original language had been struck, leaving only language to do with the compact.
Hall’s office did not respond Friday to inquiries about why Hall — whom the California Gaming Association named 2011 legislator of the year — introduced a bill connected to the 1,300-member Sonoma County tribe.
Political experts said there usually are clear reasons for bringing legislation forward in the way this bill has been handled.
“The person or the group doing it is interested in minimizing the opportunity for the opposition to mobilize,” said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University and an expert on public policy processes.
“It really gets to the heart of the gut-and-amend problem,” he said. “It short circuits the legislative process.”
Petaluma City Councilman Michael Healy, an opponent of the casino-hotel project — which would be built behind Scandia Family Fun Center just west of Highway 101 — said he intended to be at the hearing to argue that the compact be changed to address traffic concerns before it is ratified.
“These guys should pay their full fair share of what they’re going to put on the freeway,” he said.
Asked whether he thought the nine years of opposition to the casino had run its course, he said: “I think it’s fair to say it would not be on the track it is if the leadership did not think it had the votes.”
Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, said it wasn’t clear to him that enough legislators had done their homework yet. “We’re concerned that that they’ve at least read the compact; that’s my concern about it,” he said.
However, Allen, who before joining the Assembly 2010 was a labor leader who spoke out in favor of the casino, recommended a timeline far shorter than wanted by opponents.
“I would hope at a minimum it would be a week, maybe two, three, at most,” before the full legislature votes on it, he said. “This thing has been out there a while.”
He said he has asked local officials for their input.
“I’m hoping that at least there’s enough time that I can hear from the local leadership,” he said.
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