Bye Bye Barstow?

| September 13, 2007

Prospects were bleak for the Big Lagoon Rancheria on Tuesday afternoon, over there in Sacramento, where the state legislature was wading through 200-some bills on presumably the last day of its 2007 regular session and nary a one of the bills contained anything whatsoever to do with a Barstow casino.

Who knows, maybe some last-ditch gut-and-amend miracle occurred -- you know, right after they dealt with health care for children and flood safety control -- in which case you can stop reading this and offer the Big L congratulations.

But likely there was no miracle, no desperado's luck for Big Lagoon and its would-be megacasino/resort partners, the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupe±o Indians. The two have been waiting all year for the state legislature to ratify their compacts, signed by the Governor, that would allow them to erect side-by-side hotel-casinos down in the dusty, casino-hungry desert town of Barstow.

You know the story: Barstow was looking for a tribe to open a casino to lure in some of the 60 million cars trekking between SoCal and Las Vegas, and Los Coyotes -- more than 100 miles south of Barstow -- ended up first in line. Meanwhile, the Big Lagoon Rancheria -- 700 miles north of Barstow -- was wrangling in court with the state over plans to build a casino on its property at Big Lagoon. No-go, said the state -- it's too environmentally sensitive. Along came Gov. Arnie, who told Big Lagoon to go work with Los Coyotes in Barstow. Los Coyotes, a poor band with 350 members and an unsuitable reservation for a casino, would rise from poverty; Big Lagoon, a family of less than 20 members, would preserve its pristine waterside land and enjoy economic growth. Big gambling tribes lobbied against the Barstow compacts.

In May, it was almost over. The tribes' compacts had expired. But they were extended -- to Sept. 17. That's next Monday. Finally, with a couple of weeks to go, Big Lagoon and Los Coyotes launched a frenzied media campaign, including a commercial on YouTube, street-corner petitioners and a rash of phonebanking, urging people to call Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu±ez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and tell them to act on the Barstow casino.

The campaign was viewed sourly over in Perata's office. "We've received a few hundred calls," said Perata's Press Secretary Alicia Trost on Monday, "but they're from angry citizens because they're on the do-not-call list and they've been phonebanked¬Ý by some sort of phone tree."

Trost doubted the compacts would fly. First of all, she said, they weren't even in a bill. An existing bill would have to be gutted and the compacts inserted into it, a hearing would have to be held and a two-thirds vote obtained to move it along to the leaders' desks where it would have to sit for seven days. "We'd have to break our rules," Trost said. And, besides, there were only 24 hours to do the deed: Sen. Perata was pushing for the session to end Tuesday night, in deference to those celebrating Rosh Hashanah.

Jason Barnett, representing Big Lagoon, laughed at Trost's pessimism. Gut-and-amends happen all the time, he said, especially in the last flurried days of session. "If Sen. Perata wanted a bill, he would have created a bill," Barnett said. The Barstow compacts were in a bill until recently, along with those of some bigger tribes. Several of those big tribes got their compacts. Big Lagoon didn't.

Big Lagoon chairman Virgil Moorehead has said that if the compacts don't go through, he'll return to the idea of a casino project at Big Lagoon. "Maybe he'll build a Class II facility at Big Lagoon, maybe a bingo parlor," said Barnett. "But that doesn't rule out Barstow. You can never say never."

A return to the Big Lagoon site would re-open court dealings with the state. Los Coyotes, meanwhile, intends to pursue a Barstow casino, said spokesman Tom Shields, with or without Big Lagoon. "But they would prefer to work with Big Lagoon," Shields said. And, he said, there's no reason the compacts can't be extended yet again.

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