By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Opponents of an American Indian casino planned to be built in California away from tribal lands have collected what they say is enough signatures for a 2014 referendum to challenge the governor and the legislature's approval of the gambling hall.
If the measure qualifies for the ballot, it will likely set off a multimillion-dollar battle over the location of tribal gaming casinos in the nation's most populous state.
California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and the state legislature have approved an agreement for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to partner with Station Casinos of Las Vegas and build a 50-table, 2,000-slot-machine casino in Madera, about 35 miles from the tribe's reservation.
If voters approve the referendum, it would annul the agreement and could nix similar planned deals for other tribes, including one pending before the state legislature.
California voters in 2000 approved slot machines at tribal casinos.
"The voters gave Indian tribes the ability to do gaming on reservation land, and this latest compact breaks that promise and moves it off reservation land," said political consultant Andrew Acosta, who is spearheading the referendum campaign.
"If we're going to change what the voters have approved, voters should have their say."
Brigade Capital Management, a Wall Street firm invested in the nearby Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino, and the Table Mountain Rancheria, a tribe that runs a casino near the proposed gambling hall, put up $2 million to collect about 800,000 voter signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, Acosta said. A little more than 500,000 signatures are needed, he said.
Elaine Bethel-Fink, North Fork Rancheria's tribal chair, attacked the proposed referendum as an effort to stop competition in the tribal gaming industry.
"We're troubled that a single wealthy gaming tribe backed by a couple of Wall Street hedge funds would fund a cynical effort to undo 13 years of rigorous work by our tribe and Madera County leaders and the good, deliberate judgment of the state ... all to gain a financial advantage by stopping competition," she said in a statement.
Congress legalized gaming in 1988 on tribal land, and Native American groups operate casinos in a number of states.
Nationwide, 98 tribal gaming operations reported revenue between $10 million and $25 million last year, according to a statement released in July by the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Between 1999 and 2012, 67 tribal casinos opened in California, Senator Dianne Feinstein said last year in a letter to the governor.
Brown did not respond to a request for comment. But the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported that he called the referendum effort "unfortunate."
Tribes are exempt from state and local environmental and zoning regulations.
"The gaming industry comes to California, partners with a tribe and put casinos where nobody else can," said Cheryl Schmit, director of the gaming watchdog group Stand Up for California. "Citizens and the surrounding community lose control over that property."
Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler said the referendum, if approved by voters, would cost his county nearly $400 million in jobs and $100 million in funding.
"Madera County is in desperate need of the jobs, vendor business, public funding and economic benefits that the North Fork project will bring to our region," he said.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Lisa Shumaker)
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