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Department of Interior rejects Middletown Rancheria’s gaming compact with state

The U.S. Department of the Interior has rejected a Class III gaming compact between the state of California and the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians, denying the Lake County tribe the ability to offer “casino-style” gambling options like slot machines, roulette and craps.

“While California has taken great steps forward, sadly, the betrayal we feel from (Interior Secretary Deb) Haaland is something we have come to expect from the federal government,” Middletown Rancheria Chairperson Jose “Moke” Simon said in a prepared statement. “The path forward is now paved with stones that will make it difficult to navigate our tribe’s future.”

The rancheria currently operates Twin Pine Casino & Hotel, which offers a more limited range of games of chance near Middletown.

The Department of the Interior simultaneously denied a second compact that involved the Santa Rosa Rancheria, belonging to the Tachi Yokuts tribe near Lemoore, in the San Joaquin Valley.

Middletown Rancheria and Gov. Gavin Newsom had originally submitted a signed gaming compact in November, but the Department of the Interior rejected it. On Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland informed the rancheria that it had not adequately executed his recommended changes to the 2021 agreement.

Generally, Newland framed this latest rejection as an attempt to protect the interests of the tribe against burdensome governmental oversight.

For example, the wording in the compact might allow the state or the county to claim jurisdiction over hotel rooms on the property, or over Uncle Buddies Pumps, the gas station adjacent to Twin Pine Casino. That would mean any expansion or renovation of the station would trigger extensive environmental review — an outcome the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is meant to prevent.

“I recognize that the disapproval of a class III compact is a harsh remedy in circumstances like this, and that it is ultimately the Tribe that suffers the greatest consequences of a disapproval,” Howland wrote. “Secretarial disapproval is a blunt instrument, but it is the only tool the Department has at its disposal to protect the balance Congress developed in (the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act).

“Secretarial disapproval helps to fulfill Congress’ goal that Tribes should not have to sacrifice their inherent sovereignty in exchange for the proven benefits of Indian gaming.”

Howland noted that the Department of the Interior has issued at least four guidance letters to the state of California in the past decade, highlighting concern over “the state’s practice of asserting greater control over tribal land use decisions through class III gaming compacts.”

One of those letters was sent in 2012 from Donald E. Laverdure, the then-acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, to Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Chair Greg Sarris.

Despite the words of support, Simon expressed his disgust at the decision.

“The U.S. Department of Interior’s disapproval of our compact is shocking given that we worked closely with Secretary Haaland’s department to find an agreeable middle ground between the State of California and Interior,” he said.

Newsom was likewise dismayed at being overruled.

“Despite the tribes’ efforts to meet with Interior and changes negotiated with the State of California to address concerns expressed by Interior, the Department chose to disregard the interests of the tribes and arbitrarily disapprove the compacts,” he said in the joint news release. “The disapprovals threaten the ability of these and other tribes to invest and maintain jobs in many of California’s economically disadvantaged communities.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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