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California and the West

House OKs Indians' Purchase of Land for Casino

Legislation: The bill, which would allow a gambling hall outside of tribe's reservation, still must clear Senate.

September 19, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hours after rival Native American bands worked out a land agreement, the House approved legislation Monday that would grant the Torres-Martinez Indians, whose reservation was flooded almost a century ago, the right to buy more than 11,000 desert acres.

The bill, passed by voice vote, is controversial because it would also allow the Torres-Martinezes to build California's first Indian casino off a reservation. That has prompted criticism from some legislators and raised the ire of a neighboring Indian band, the Cabazons, who feared the casino would set a bad precedent.

But Christopher Mansour, chief of staff for Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), said an agreement forged Monday morning between the Torres-Martinezes and the Cabazons paved the way for the House vote--and could create a friendlier audience in the Senate, where the legislation has not yet been introduced.

Kildee is a chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, an informal group of about 100 congressmen who are interested in Native American issues. He helped forge Monday's deal.

"Now that we have an agreement between the two tribes, it makes it a lot easier to get it through the House and Senate and get it to the White House," Mansour said. "It does add momentum."

A Colorado River flood in 1905 created the Salton Sea in the Riverside County desert--and left half the Torres-Martinez reservation under water. The federal government told the Indian band that the lake would evaporate, but runoff from nearby farms made it permanent.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs), would allow the Torres-Martinez band to buy more than 11,000 acres near their reservation southeast of Palm Springs. It would also allow the band to buy 640 acres near Interstate 10. There, the tribe hopes to build a casino.

The casino would be down the road from the Cabazons' Fantasy Springs Casino, and some Cabazons had feared the competition. But the agreement reached Monday, congressional aides said, will keep any Torres-Martinez developments, including their new casino, at least two miles from Cabazon land.

"We didn't think that was a deal-breaker," said Mary Belardo, chairwoman of the Torres-Martinez band. "So we agreed to it."

The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where some members are opposed to allowing a casino on land that is not part of a reservation. Further complicating matters, Congress is expected to leave Washington for the year in October.

Bono has not found anyone willing to sponsor the legislation in the Senate, but she said she will now push to get her bill in the Senate soon.

"We sat down and worked with the Cabazons and the Torres-Martinezes to work out their concerns," Bono said. "We still have a lot of work to do in the Senate. That's going to take an awful lot of muscle."

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