Don’t Pave Over Community Concerns
Written for Assemblyman Tim Leslie
May 8, 2001
Among the fiercest battles of California’s 1998 election was the controversial Indian gaming initiative, Proposition 5. The measure was pitched to voters as a means of enabling poor Native American tribes to lift themselves up from poverty with casino operations. A vocal opposition objected, arguing the Proposition would lead to an explosion of unregulated gambling across the state.
Both expectations proved largely correct. Indian casinos, like oil wells in Kuwait, now keep tribes that own them awash in cash. The promise of such wealth has also set many un-casinoed tribes on a frenetic quest to build gaming facilities of their own. Already, there is one casino for every 240 Indians living on a reservation in California; in all likelihood, within a few years, that number will become one casino for every 160 reservation Indians.
It is not difficult to understand tribes’ eagerness to be a part of California’s casino gold rush. Facing no real competition and free from most of the taxes and regulation that encumber other enterprises, Indian gaming may well be the most profitable investment in the state.
Equally understandable, however, is the opposition frequently voiced by those who inhabit the areas around proposed casino sites. Large-scale gambling operations not only can spawn traffic problems and infrastructure shortages, but are also strongly linked to increases in crime, poverty, alcoholism, and other social pathologies.
One site of struggle between casino backers and a local community is the sleepy Sierra town of Shingle Springs, CA. While less than 8,000 people inhabit the area today, the sixty-five residents of a local Indian rancheria and their out-of-state financiers envision the lights of a $125 million dollar casino drawing gamblers from as far away as San Francisco in the not-too-distant future.
The thought of such a facility strikes most area residents as impossibly contradictory to the rural life they love. The nearest transportation artery, Highway 50, is already crowded. The flood of anticipated visitors would deluge the overburdened corridor. There is also the matter of infrastructure, such as sewage and water, which is currently far from capable of servicing such a massive enterprise.
In essence, local residents fear the expansive casino would irreparably change their community from a quiet mountain town to a hub of industry—an industry without any real product except sizeable spillovers of both environmental and social pollution.
With moves similar to the approach taken in other parts of the state, casino-backers are working the angles to circumvent local concerns about the casino. Part of the campaign involves Assembly Bill 1564, now on its way through the Legislature, sponsored by an Assemblyman from southern California who has received over a half-million dollars from Indian gaming interests. AB 1564—much like a similar measure vetoed last year—would alter normal CalTrans procedures to allow the construction of a major interchange along Highway 50 near the proposed casino site without local approval.
While the interchange is being proffered as merely a means of residential access for the tribe, critics point out that residential access already exists. They view AB 1564’s CalTrans policy change as simply one more attempt to steamroll their objections.
Given that Proposition 5 and the 2000 election’s Proposition 1A are now the law of California, even those staunchly opposed to gambling have little choice but to acknowledge the inevitability of at least some expansion in gaming. And although many who voted for these propositions may now regret their decision, it would be virtually impossible to reverse the law, especially given the heavily-financed political clout many tribes now possess.
The question remains, however, whether or not casino backers will be allowed to run roughshod over local interests whenever they get the itch to transform a quiet community into a miniature Las Vegas.
I do not believe that was intended by voters when they gave the nod to Indian gaming in 1998. The Legislature has no business facilitating such actions with a bill like AB 1564.
--Tim Leslie is Assemblyman of California’s 4th Assembly District, which reaches from Roseville to Lake Tahoe in the north and Mammoth Lakes in the south.