Casino Fight Enters The Next Round

August 6, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — A loss in the state’s highest court hasn’t deterred casino opponents, including those who are contesting one in Wayland Township.

A political action committee known as 23 Is Enough, along with other groups and businesses, has vowed to continue the fight — statewide and locally — to stop the Gun Lake Band of Pottawatomi Indians from opening a casino in Allegan County.

“Our mission is to elect a majority of state lawmakers who oppose the expansion of casinos in Michigan,” said John Helmholdt, PAC manager for 23 Is Enough, a coalition of members from Kent, Ottawa, Allegan and Muskegon counties.

Helmholdt called the court’s decision “ a sad day for the legislative process” on an issue as important as gambling, making the need for a constitutional amendment that bans further casinos even more vital.

Opponents of the Wayland casino, which is planned for the former Ampro Industries Inc. site, are waiting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to release its March finding that the gaming house would not have a significant impact on the environment and put the land into trust for the tribe. Once that notice is published, opponents will have 30 days to file a court challenge against the decision.

“It will likely not be the PAC that does that. It will likely be one or multiple members of our coalition,” said Helmholdt.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce said a casino in Allegan County would siphon about $50 million annually from Kent County businesses. But Allegan officials said the casino would create 4,300 jobs and draw roughly $170 million in additional revenue. Gov. Jennifer Granholm hasn’t signed the compact into law yet.

By a 5-2 vote, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld an appellate court decision on July 30 and let stand a 1998 resolution that created new tribal casinos in the state. A resolution was also used to approve a proposed casino for Wayland Township.

Plaintiffs argued that Article IV of the state constitution requires all legislation to be approved by bills. But Chief Justice Maura Corrigan, writing for the majority, said the constitution doesn’t mandate that lawmakers approve the compacts through a bill.

“In approving those compacts by resolution, the Legislature did not modify Michigan law in any respect; instead, the Legislature simply expressed its approval of valid contracts between two independent, sovereign entities,” wrote Corrigan.

Justices Elizabeth Weaver and Stephen Markman dissented. Weaver held that legislation is necessary and concluded that the compacts should be voided. Markman said the court’s decision took too much power away from lawmakers and put that authority in the hands of the governor.

“The majority has effectively ensured that in future cases the Legislature’s role in approving such compacts will exist merely at the sufferance of the Governor,” wrote Markman in his 70-page dissent.

Robert Jonker, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd and lead attorney for the plaintiffs, was disappointed with the court’s decision.

“Absolutely, we’re very disappointed. We think Justice Markman, in dissent, really got it right and put his finger on not only the correct legal analysis, but, frankly, the disturbing consequences of the opinion,” said Jonker.

“The Legislature is basically cut out of this process now except at the will of the governor. At least, that is a fair reading of the opinion,” he added.

The case was Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos (TOMAC) and Laura Baird vs. the State of Michigan and North American Sports Management Co. Inc. The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, R-Grandville, each filed briefs to the TOMAC suit.

Jonker said TOMAC has a complaint pending at the federal level against a tribal casino planned for New Buffalo. Another anti-casino group has succeeded in getting a ruling that requires an environmental impact study be done for a proposed Emmett Township casino in Calhoun County after the Bureau said it wasn’t necessary.

Helmholdt, whose group feels the current 23 casinos in the state are enough, said the PAC would concentrate on trying to bring state lawmakers back into the approval process.

“Our hope and our goal is to now engage the Legislature in reasserting its position and promptly enacting legislation that would essentially prohibit the governor from unilaterally approving or amending any more gambling compacts,” he said.

“The states are given rights by the federal government to decide how to approve these compacts,” he added. “Currently, in the way the justices have ruled, the governor does have essentially unilateral control. We maintain that is still an inaccurate position.”    

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