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Barstow casino compacts fail to pass state legislature

Editor's note: This is an updated version of a story originally posted Wednesday afternoon.

BARSTOW — The state Senate adjourned for the 2007 legislative session at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday and failed to approve the agreements necessary for the Big Lagoon Rancheria and Los Coyotes Indian tribes to build a casino in Barstow.

The Barstow casino compacts, signed by the governor on Sept. 9, 2005, will expire if not passed by both houses of the state legislature by Sept. 17, 2007. Tuesday was the last day for the senate to pass any legislation.

Tom Shields, spokesman for BarWest, LLC. blamed the failure to pass the contract on “wealthy Indian gaming tribes” and said the “legislature failed to do the right thing.”

He said that the project had the support of Barstow city officials, Indian tribes and major environmental groups who are opposed to the Big Lagoon tribe building a casino on a environmentally sensitive lagoon on their Humbolt County reservation.

“The tribes are disappointed that the legislature chose to make the wealthy tribes richer and leave the Los Coyotes tribe to fend for themselves. This project made a tremendous amount of public policy and environmental sense,” he said.

He said that the tribes and BarWest have not decided if they will seek extensions for the compacts to be considered for year’s legislative session but that the failure to ratify the compacts does not mean the death of the project.

“We really don’t know what will happen; it will depend on how the tribes decide to proceed,” he said.

Mayor Lawrence Dale, a longtime supporter of the BarWest casino development, said he was “extremely disappointed” in the failure of the legislature to pass the compacts. He disputed claims that the involved parties didn’t try hard enough to lobby the legislature to support the cause.

“I think BarWest and their lobbyists did everything they could, but there was powerful opposition,” he said.

Dale said that he’s hoping that the city can meet with the tribes and the governor’s office to find some way to continue the project.

He said that though all options would be considered, the compacts required the support of both tribes involved

“We need the Big Lagoon to be part of this project in order to move forward,” he said.

Virgil Moorehead, chairman for the Big Lagoon tribe, was unable to be reached for comment Wednesday but said in May that he would not support an extension. His tribe has been fighting to build a casino for six years and has been involved with the Barstow casino for two years. Moorehead previously said the tribe had the option to walk away from the whole project when the land into trust deadline approached but agreed to the Sept. 17 extension, making it clear this would be the last.

"If it doesn't make it by September 17, there's no deal," he said in May 2007.

Despite those statements, tribal spokesman Jason Barnett, said Wednesday that the tribe will consider all its options and won’t necessarily withdraw its support for the Barstow project.

“I don’t think the tribe would close the door on any opportunity to provide for itself,” he said.

Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for governor’s office, said that the governor was “disappointed by the legislature’s failure to approve the compacts.”

She said that although the expiration date for the compacts is fast approaching, the governor continues to support the development of a casino in Barstow.

“We’ll be talking to the tribes and discussing our options of what happens next. This is something we will continue to strive for,” she said.

She did not rule out the possibility of extending the deadline for the compacts to be approved by the legislature and said that meetings were planned with the tribes.

Barstow’s state senator Roy Ashburn blamed the failure to pass the compacts on a “noticeable lack of will on the part of the governor.” He said that although he would consider sponsoring the compacts next year in the legislature, he expected that fierce opposition would continue.

“I think Barstow is too easy a target for wealthy Indian gaming tribes and non-Indian gaming interests from Las Vegas and the horse racing industry,” he said.

He said that he advocated a strategy of bundling the Barstow compacts together with the compacts of other wealthier tribes in order to reduce opposition, but that such a move would require the support of the governor.

“We need the governor with his horsepower against the tribes,” he said.

Some observers had predicted the defeat of the compacts. A bill to approve the compacts was introduced in January, but the bill was never voted on by the full Senate during the 2007 session. A similar bill to pass the compacts in the state Assembly failed in 2006. The original sponsor of the bill to pass the agreements, Senator Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, amended the bill on Sept. 7 and deleted the language related to the Barstow casino, replacing it with an unrelated bill concerned with alcoholic beverages.

Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for two special sessions of the legislature for later this year, these sessions will only discuss health care reform and water safety issues and the Barstow compacts will not be considered, said Alicia Tross, spokeswoman for Senate President Don Perata, D-Oakland.

Shirley Smith, vice-chairwoman for the Chemehuevi tribe, said she hopes the failure to pass the compacts will allow her tribe to proceed with its own casino development plans.

“We hope that this the opens up the door for us. We have requested negotiations with the governor’s office and hope that at the city, Mayor Dale and council member (Julie) McIntyre will work earnestly with the tribe to bring our casino to Barstow,” Smith said.

Former City Council member Manuel “Gil” Gurule said that expected the compacts to fail and advised the city to support the Chemehuevi tribe.

“If we’d had the chance with the Chemehuevis, then we’d have a casino by now,” he said.

Gurule has supported the Chemehuevi tribe and sponsored Measure H on the 2006 ballot. The measure would have created a zoning district for casinos that included the property on which the Chemehuevi want to build a casino, but not the land for the Los Coyotes/Big Lagoon project. The measure failed.

Larry Halstead, a frequent speaker at City Council meetings and critic of the BarWest project, said he wasn’t surprised at the failure to pass the compacts.

“They were an absolute non-starter all along. What people need to understand is that they were doomed from the beginning. This is the worst case of reservation shopping ever,” he said.

Halstead, who has frequently supported the Chemehuevi Indians, said he opposed the Big Lagoon/Los Coyotes compacts because “they don’t have ancestral ties to the area.”

Halstead said that though he received a $2,500 campaign contribution in the past from the San Manuel Indian tribe, he was not an agent or employee of any tribe.

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