Rincon Band Makes History, Secedes from State Oversight

In California, tribal sovereignty is not to be taken lightly—just ask the leading U.S. online bookmakers. Now, the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians and Chairman Bo Mazzetti (l.) are making their own display of independence by disassociating with state regulators and opting instead to deal with the NIGC one-on-one. A bold new idea, but If it’s successful, more tribes may look to do the same.

Rincon Band Makes History, Secedes from State Oversight

The 500-member Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians in San Diego County was one of the first California tribes to open a casino in the early 2000s. Now it is trailblazing another path: it has taken back its right to oversee its own gaming operations.

From now on, the tribe will only be dealing with the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) in a form of compact known as “secretarial procedures.”

Or, as longtime Chairman Bo Mazzetti put it, the tribe removed “the middle man.”

He added, “We have our tribal gaming commission, that oversees our operations, and the state, that oversees our operations and the feds, who oversees our operation, three different entities. That was too much.”

Moreover, Rincon’s gaming commission is of such a high quality that it has, according to Mazzetti, “trained various state staff. We have one of the top notch gaming commissions in the state or even in the country.”

In an interview with Global Gaming Business, Mazzetti said,“What we’ve done is exert our sovereign jurisdiction as was originally intended by federal IGRA (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) that authorized Indian gaming. It was always the intent for tribes to run their own casino business but when they passed IGRA they said, ‘You need to reach an agreement with your state.’ That became the compact.”

The chairman added, “We are implementing the law as it was intended by IGRA. It goes back to the intent of that law.”

For more than a dozen years, the Rincon tribe and the state have gone back and forth over casino oversight—the tribe’s biggest sticking point has always been that state entities have not been properly transparent about fees and charges.

Mazzetti, who has been chairman for 16 years, recalled that “in 1999 we had the standard gaming compact that was involved with gaming. We then had a dispute with the state (then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) in 2004. The dispute was over the fact that they were charging and wanting us to pay for things that were not part of the intent of IGRA. Paying into different funds that were not covered by the law.”

He added, “We don’t mind paying our costs of oversight to the state. However, the state wouldn’t tell us what we were paying for. They wouldn’t break it down.”

Eventually the Rincon tribe sued the state in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the tribe. The tribe’s gaming compact, “was actually approved by the federal government and not the state,” said Mazzetti.

This became known as secretarial procedures, a way for tribes to reach a compact agreement with the NIGC if they are unable to do so with their state body.

Last fall, the state agreed to “opt out” of overseeing Rincon tribal gaming.

California’s gaming tribes currently pay a combined total of $67 million into a state fund to regulate tribal gaming, and those funds also go toward the California Gambling Control Commission, the Bureau of Gambling Control, the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of Problem Gambling.

Rincon will no longer pay into that fund. Instead, it will pay the NIGC.

“We get audited on federal government to see that we are following the requirements,” said Mazzetti. “We go overboard to make sure that we have a good operation. It’s important for our customers to know that everything is safe, well-regulated and proper.”

Rincon will continue to pay $1.3 million each year into the state’s revenue sharing trust fund. That fund is distributed to tribes that lack gaming operations.

Some observers of California gaming think this development could begin a move towards the exit for many Golden State tribes. Mazzetti said that that could be a possibility, but in the end, “it will be up to each sovereign tribe.

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.