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Tohono O’odham Nation’s casino journey ends

It’s been a long journey for the Tohono O’odham Nation. Eight years, to be exact, and court dates in the double digits. Not to mention, hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.

But, in the end, the Nation’s goal is within reach: Class III gaming license with poker and blackjack tables and Vegas-style slot machines, instead of bingo-game based machines, and a liquor license for its patrons to replace coffee, juice and soda. All that is required at this stage is the approval of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The state and the two largest casino operators in Arizona, Gila River Indian Community and Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community, attempted to use the 2002 gaming compact as a tool that ties the Nation’s hands. But, those attempts were not successful in 13 different court decisions.

Both sides – the state and the Nation – have been in a standoff – most of us thought - since December, when Federal District Court Judge David Campbell decided their differences should be argued in a state court.

That was five months ago. In that time, a new U.S. president was sworn into office with plans to build a giant wall at the Mexican border. The problem is, the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation laps over that border into Mexico in southern Arizona. From a video produced by the Nation, its officials are content to leave things as they are; their people travel back and forth across the border on a regular basis to visit relatives and friends. Tohono O’odham law enforcement has a working relationship with U.S. Border Patrol agents.

That being said, the border situation has consumed much of the Nation’s time, and the casino issue, at least outwardly, appeared to be less important.

Apparently, while many of us thought it was just a matter of time before another court date was set in a state, not federal, courtroom, negotiations have been taking place in a low-key, conference room atmosphere. No lights, no cameras, just Nation and state officials hashing out an agreement both parties can live with.

What may have played an important role in negotiations is money. That’s right – money.

The Arizona Department of Gaming, in partnership with Arizona’s tribes, regulates Indian gaming. Under the Arizona Tribal-State Gaming Compact, tribes with casinos contribute one to eight percent of their Class III gross gaming revenue to the state, cities, towns, and counties. In Arizona, Class III gaming includes slot machines, jackpot poker, blackjack, keno and off-track pari-mutuel betting. There are currently 24 Class III casinos in the state. Tribes send contributions to the Arizona Benefits Fund every three months.

Total tribal contributions for the quarter ending March 31, 2017: $24,866,80. Half of that total, $12,483,248, is directed toward the Instructional Improvement Fund/Education. This money goes to the Arizona Department of Education, and is distributed to school districts around the state based on enrollment.

This past fiscal year, tribal contributions from their gaming operations contributed almost $91 million to the state. This is a percentage of the gross aggregate revenues from all Class III casinos in the state, which totaled $1.874 billion, from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016.

That total does not include revenues generated by Desert Diamond Casino-West Valley, which is operating under a Class II license. The state receives no funds from, nor does it regulate, Class II license operations. So, the state will see increased funding once Desert Diamond Casino-West Valley turns on its Class III slot machines and sets up its poker and blackjack tables.

When should the shovels be brought out for a major groundbreaking? Nation officials may want to wait until the U.S. Department of Interior gives its final seal of approval.

There is no cloud hanging over the Class III license from Congressman Trent Franks, either. He has acknowledged his “Keeping the Promise” bill is officially dead and congratulated Gov. Doug Ducey on the agreement between the state and the Nation.

Those individuals in the West Valley who have waited patiently for their own Class III casino all these years will have to be content to wait a little longer. But in the end, it will be worth the wait. It means a $400 million investment, construction work for the next couple years, and long-term employment for those West Valley residents seeking stable jobs.

Now, perhaps, the real work begins.