Arizona lawmakers want to use casino agreements to force tribes to settle water disputes

By Ryan Randazzo and Andrew Oxford | Arizona Republic 

Republican leaders at the Arizona Legislature are proposing that tribes with outstanding water disputes with the state be forced to settle those claims before they can renegotiate the number of slots and games they offer at casinos.

That’s the idea behind House Bill 2447, sponsored by Rep. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, with House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, among others, as co-sponsors.

Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort
/Photo: Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort

The complex negotiations over water rights, where a court must determine which parties get certain amounts of water, can take decades to settle, and nine tribes in Arizona have unsettled water rights, including the largest, the Navajo Nation.

The bill would serve to speed up those negotiations because the gaming compacts that allow tribes to run casinos, which are vital to their economies, expire for many tribes in 2023.

“It needs to be resolved for the tribes and for the state,” Pierce said of the water disputes. “What’s going to push them to settle? Who is making money is the lawyers. It’s not undoable. It’s not a burden. It has to be done some time.”

Sixteen of the state’s 22 federally recognized tribes operate 24 full-scale casinos with gaming compacts and another six have rights to operate slots that they may lease to other tribes, according to the Arizona Department of Gaming.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office has been negotiating new tribal gaming compacts, potentially overhauling them, for the past few years.

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