Newsom's OK leaves casino project with Legislature

Newsom's OK leaves casino project with Legislature

The Tejon Indian Tribe casino proposal that won Gov. Gavin Newsom's approval this week faces a potentially higher hurdle next as local lawmakers look to revive an earlier effort to get the project through the state Legislature amid expectations other tribal governments might oppose it.

Hopes for winning final approval of the $600 million casino now rest with a placeholder bill that will be amended to include a measure ratifying the gambling agreement signed by the governor Monday following a federal determination that 320 acres off Interstate 5 at Highway 166 are suitable for a gaming facility.

The legislation's author, state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, said Tuesday she's "cautiously optimistic" her Senate Bill 910 will pass despite concerns she anticipates being raised by other tribes.

"It's not done until it's done, and it's not done yet," said Hurtado, D-Sanger.

In a statement, Assemblyman Rudy Salas, SB 910's principal co-author, said wrinkles that held up Sacramento's approval of the project last year appear to have been ironed out.

"This bill addresses the concerns from last year and mitigates impacts to the local community while bringing shared prosperity and community benefits to the state and Kern County," stated Salas, D-Bakersfield. Other co-authors of the bill include state Sen. Shannon Grove and Assemblyman Vince Fong, both of them Bakersfield Republicans.

With an 11-story hotel and 166,500 square feet of gaming space, the 3,000-slot casino the Tejon tribe plans to develop with Hard Rock International would be a big boost to the local economy. The project's construction would employ some 1,000 people, not including more than 2,000 jobs expected to remain permanently with an annual payroll estimated at $59 million.

The hotel and casino would be part of a 320-acre complex that would come with housing, a health care facility and administrative space for the 1,200-member tribe that received federal recognition in 2012.

"This has been a long but worthwhile journey for the tribe," Tejon Indian Tribe Chairman Octavio Escobedo III said in a news release. "These decisions were necessary and significant steps toward the development of a tribal homeland for our tribe, which has been landless for more than 150 years."

Kern County government officials have voiced official support for the project, as have local businesses, labor unions, law enforcement agencies and community groups.

Building the project is expected to take between 18 and 20 months. A project spokesman said it's not clear when construction would start.

The project may not begin without the Legislature's ratification of the governor's move this week to concur with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's determination the land that would be held in trust for the tribe is appropriate for gaming. If the Legislature signs off, then the federal Department of the Interior would initiative a 45-day review under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

As it stands, SB 910 proposes to double the amount of time applicants are allowed to challenge an employment eligibility ruling by the California Gambling Control Commission. But people involved in the legislative process said Tuesday the legislation is simply a "spot bill" introduced as a way of securing an opportunity for amendments later.

Last year, there were informal efforts in the Legislature to get the Tejon tribe's gaming agreement approved by lawmakers, but no bill was ultimately introduced to accomplish that. Hurtado said she was glad the governor took up the matter and signed the accord.

She said she worries tribal governments may yet try to stop SB 910.

"We just don't know if there could be last-minute opposition that could block that," she said.

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