A high stakes gamble by Native American tribes is being waged far from their Indian casinos: the game is being played in courtrooms all across California.
The latest power grab by the Agua Caliente tribe is a federal lawsuit that would allow the tribe to stop paying certain taxes to Riverside County. The taxes amount to $29 million dollars a year, according to a county audit – money used for schools, police, fire and roads.
It is the latest volley in an escalating war between local governments and tribes, who seem to feel that their status as sovereign nations allows them to avoid taxes, clean air regulations, development limits and even the notion that water belongs to the public.
Yes, Native Americans were badly mistreated in history. But today is a different story thanks to casino revenues topping $7 billion a year in California and northern Nevada.
A Desert Sun investigation by reporter Keith Matheny last year found the state’s five largest tribes spent over $4.8 million over a two year period to lobby state officials in Sacramento, and that the Agua Caliente and Morongo tribes – along with two others – have spent nearly $250 million on politics since 2000.
Noted California journalist Joe Mathews said of the tribes, “They are getting the protection of a monopoly, sanctioned by the federal government and formalized by the states.”
In fact, Indian gaming has influenced – some might say corrupted – every level of government and non-profit groups from the State Capitol to local Boy Scout troops, as the checks are doled-out, both large and small.
And it’s easy to connect the dots between gambling casino donations and getting a politician’s attention. Gov. Jerry Brown doesn’t make many public appearances. But when the Governor attended two events at Los Angeles casinos last month, several news organizations noted they were the same casinos that had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his re-election campaign and his ballot measures.
But the stakes just got higher now that the tribes have upped the ante: the Agua Caliente tribe has sued to takeover and essentially privatize our underground water supply. If you think your water rates are high now, wait until you don’t have an elected board to complain to about the bills. It’s not enough that the Morongo Tribe uses its water rights to siphon-off water from under the San Gorgonio Pass and sell it back to us as “Arrowhead.”
And now comes the tribe’s trump card: their lawsuit that would exempt them from paying millions of dollars in local taxes. Who do the tribes think should pay for the roads around their casinos, the police and fire protections they receive, the schools their children attend?
No wonder individual homeowners want in on this game, with several also filing for tax refunds from Riverside County, simply because they live on Indian land.
Imagine all the land that would be removed from the tax rolls if the tribes and homeowners are successful, especially considering the latest strategy by California tribes: buying new land and adding it to their reservations in hopes of building more casinos, all with federal approval.
But signs of a backlash are appearing.
As The Los Angeles Times reported last month, lawmakers are questioning the tribes’ claims to land where they want new casinos, noting that “major gambling operators from Las Vegas and elsewhere are funding the tribes’ efforts … in exchange for future management contracts.”
And even more significantly, the very notion of tribal sovereignty is being questioned by no less than Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an important case involving a Michigan tribe, argued before the Supreme Court last month, Chief Justice John Roberts referred to Indian tribes as “quasi sovereigns” – a term that raised eyebrows in the courtroom. Justice Antonin Scalia added, “So I assume that this Court could also determine the scope of their sovereignty.”
Whether the high court will limit tribal sovereignty remains to be seen.
But the court of public opinion is already in, and to many it appears that the tribes have greatly overplayed their hand. ###