WASHINGTON -- Out of the dry fields along Interstate 5 near Corning sprouts one of California's most lucrative crops: an Indian-owned casino.
Operated by the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians, the Rolling Hills Casino includes 700 slot machines, a dozen gambling tables and lights so bright along I-5 that no freeway motorist could ignore the siren call.
Odd as it might seem, the Paskenta Band is among a growing chorus pressing to tighten up the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that has delivered to them such obvious prosperity.
The problem? The Greenville Rancheria of Maidu Indians, more than 90 miles away.
The rancheria, backed by a wealthy New York shopping center developer, is desperately trying to build its own 700 slot casino just 13 miles up the freeway in Red Bluff.
Throughout California and the United States, the chorus for changes in the gaming act is growing louder; among the most vocal are tribes who already own casinos and local governments who want no more.
This year they have found a champion -- Rep. Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee.
The Tracy Republican is focused on eliminating what's become known as "reservation shopping," where tribes without land of their own go looking for other land in an ideally suited location. They then appeal to the Interior Department to take it into trust for them for gambling.
Pombo is proposing changes to the 17-year-old law that would give non-Indians a greater say over casino placement while shunting newcomers like the Greenville Rancheria to "Indian Economic Opportunity Zones" -- sprawling complexes, two per state, that each could be the equivalent of a mini-Las Vegas.
Such a change could affect a Lodi man's proposal to open an Indian casino near Flag City.
Legislation still in works
Pombo has yet to introduce legislation, but he has circulated a draft bill that is drawing strong comments at hearings around the country. The bill gives hope to local governments but inevitably divides Indian tribes between the haves and the have-nots.
Trying to change the law is virtually certain to become a high-stakes battle at a time when campaign money and high lobbying fees paid by Indian gambling interests are sore topics on Capitol Hill. Such money already is swirling in Pombo's direction.
In the first three months of the year, Pombo raised about $100,000 for his 2006 re-election campaign. Of that total, $38,800 came from Indian tribes in nine states wanting access to the man they know is writing their future.
"Oh, they know," Pombo said with a laugh.
Democrats seem content so far to watch largely from the sidelines as Pombo wades deeper and deeper into a tangled issue that even he has trouble seeing his way through.
Others -- like Sacramento attorney Howard Dickstein, who has made a career out of representing gambling tribes -- said the problem Pombo is trying to fix never has been as serious as critics charge and is withering anyway because of more careful state and federal regulation.
"There's a kind of hysteria among developers that if they spend a million or 2 million dollars, they will reap hundreds of millions," he said. "But a backlash has developed, and I think the way the laws are starting to be enforced now makes clear that the window is fast closing."
But Pombo disagreed, saying that members of Congress in every state with Indian gambling have come to him with horror stories about new casinos on land that's never been in Indian hands.
The 1988 act was passed to regulate Indian gambling on reservations, Pombo said. He said few ever conceived of the current explosion in tribes seeking to buy land far from their ancestral homes and have it taken into trust by the federal government so that it can qualify for a casino.
"This is beginning to create a lot of conflict between tribes themselves," Pombo said.
The Tehama County conflict is just one example.
Leslie Lohse, treasurer of the Paskenta Band, said the Greenville Rancheria's roots are in the mountains, and it should not be allowed to move in on the tribe's valley territory.
"Greenville has trust lands in Greenville," she said. "We did a feasibility study for them, and they have a market for a casino in the Lake Almanor area if they just stay home."
The problem, she said, is that Greenville is financed by a New York developer who wants a casino along the heavily traveled I-5 corridor. Lodi resident William Bill also wants to build a casino along I-5, at Flag City. The plans still needs county approval.
He said he is the tribal chief of the Winnemucca Indian Colony, which has its tribal lands in Winnemuca, Nev. Bill has told the News-Sentinel he wants to build here to give back to the local community; he said he would give a 5 percent cut of the casino's revenues to the city of Lodi and San Joaquin County, and fund health clinics for American Indiances on the tribe's land in Nevada.
In January, Tehama County supervisors wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs urging rejection of the Greenville Rancheria's application to have the land taken into trust for gambling purposes.
"This is not the first time that the Greenville Rancheria has attempted to reap the benefits of casino gambling conducted far from the tribe's own territory," the county said. A 2001 attempt to open a casino in Oxnard also was rejected. The rancheria said it operates a health clinic in Red Bluff and insists it has clear cultural ties to the river valley.
Opposition: 'No crisis'
Lorie Jaimes, chair of the Greenville Rancheria, hotly opposed any tinkering with the gambling law, saying there is "no crisis" warranting the sweeping changes Pombo proposes.
"It is not lost on the Greenville Rancheria that some of the most vocal critics of off-reservation gambling are Indian tribes with many of the most lucrative casinos in the United States," Jaimes told Pombo at a March hearing.
Pombo's draft legislation would restrict tribes more closely to their ancestral homes and, most disturbing to many Indians who insist their sovereign status puts them above local law, give veto power to local governments like Tehama County.
If tribes such as the Greenville still want into the gambling business, under Pombo's draft bill they would have to cooperate with other tribes in development within an economic zone.
Pombo is proposing two per state -- one on lands somewhere that have no connection to ancestral Indian occupation, and another on an existing reservation or trust land in which the nongambling host tribe would be limited to a 10 percent management fee.
News-Sentinel staff contributed to this report.