Inside Indian gaming propositions

January 29, 2008 11:39:18 PM PST
By now, you've probably seen the ads many times -- Indian tribes urging you to support a deal that promises billions of dollars to the state.

Opponents call it a sweetheart deal -- bad for California.

The fight is over four propositions on the ballot next week. And they've touched off one of the most expensive campaigns in state history.

Baby needs a new pair of shoes, and California needs a new source of income.

So governor Schwarzenegger is betting on a deal with four southern California Indian tribes. They get to expand their casinos and the state shares the profits.

"I think this money is extremely important for the future of California," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) California.

The state legislature agreed.

So last year, four of the wealthiest tribes in the state signed compacts with the governor. Both sides thought it was a done deal, but not everyone was happy.

A coalition of groups that didn't like the compacts, got enough signatures to put them on the ballot and let voters decide.

There are four propositions: 94 to 97, one for each tribe.

The tribes now have about 8,000 slot machines between them. If the measures pass, they could add 17,000 more. They would pay the state 15 to 25-percent of profits from the new machines.

Supporters say it's a windfall for the ailing budget.

"This is the biggest share of any slot machine revenue that the state has ever received under any compact in the history of California ? period," said Roger Salazar from Yes on Props 94-97.

Opponents say the state should go back to the bargaining table.

"There is not sufficient protection for taxpayers, massive expansion of gambling, a bad deal for all of us," said Lenny Goldberg from the California Tax Reform Association.

Both sides have blanketed California television with ads.

The "no" side has raised $33 million dollars, from donors including a race track owner, organized labor, a Las Vegas casino and Indians with competing casinos.

The "yes" side has almost tripled that: $96 million dollars; most coming from the four tribes.

The two sides disagree on just about everything. The four tribes claim the compacts give the state more than just money.

"It allows the state of California to have a say so in the way tribes operate their business. And that means stepped up environmental protection, stepped up worker compensation, stepped up patron protections," said Nancy Conrad from the Agua Caliente Tribe Spokesperson.

The opposition says the wording is unclear and the protections are not strong enough.

"They are detrimental to the taxpayers of California, to the environment, to casino workers and to other tribes," said Cheryl Schmit from No on Props 94-97.

Professor Peter Dreier is director of the urban and environmental policy program at Occidental College.

He did his own independent analysis of the compacts and believes the state may not be able to ensure the Indians pay what they owe.

"The Indians themselves are going to decide how much money they made and how much they owe the taxpayers, how much they owe the state, which is like the fox guarding the chicken coop," said Professor Peter Dreier, Ph.D., from Occidental College.

Supporters of the compacts say that's just wrong. The state has plenty of oversight authority and will get a lot of money.

"The state gets over $9 billion dollars in additional revenue over the next two decades," said Salazar.

That's actually just an estimate, put together in consultation with the governor's office.

A report by the state legislative analyst is more conservative says: "Revenues would depend largely on how fast the tribes bring new slot machines online, nd whether they put in the maximum number allowed."

The analyst estimates the compacts will bring in: "Less than half of one percent of California's annual revenues for the foreseeable future."

And, what about the rest of California's Indian tribes? Many support the compacts.

If these propositions pass-- the non-gaming tribes would not get any more money than they're already receiving, not another penny.

They would keep collecting the same yearly payments they've been getting since Indian casinos opened in California -- nothing changes.

Nelson Pinola is chairman of one of those non-gaming tribes.

"These four tribes have come out to say we pay for health care. We are providing schooling on these reservations, we are doing this. I make myself available and say take me to where you are doing this because it's certainly not happening on my reservation," said Nelson Pinola from Manchester Point Arena Pomo Indians.

Even if the non-gaming tribes don't get extra money from the new slot machines, there's no question the propositions would mean at least some additional money for the state.

Next Tuesday we'll find out whether voters feel that's enough to justify a major expansion of gambling on four tribal reservations.


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