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Tribes on a roll; Will voters end it?

California’s casino Indian tribes have been on a roll since the late 1990s, when voters passed two ballot propositions allowing vast expansion of their lucrative operations.

The results have been an end to poverty on some reservations, endless battles over who really is a member of some tribes and a vast increase in the number of gamblers. This is about location as much as addiction: The closer you put casinos to population centers, the more gamblers you will have.

One study from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago recently found that while in the late 1970s about two-thirds of American adults participated in gaming of some kind, from government lotteries to card rooms and riverboat casinos, today it’s more like 85 percent.

California’s Indian casinos have never lost a major ballot battle, in part because they’ve always been united. Even non-casino tribes backed gaming expansions because the gaming tribes pledged to give them a cut of the take.

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In fact, the richer California tribes do give the poorer ones about $100 million a year. But that hasn’t helped their fellow Native Americans in other parts of the country: The Sioux in the Dakotas, the Navajo in the Southwest and many other tribes still live in poverty, solicit donations continually from non-Indians and get relatively little assistance from their wealthy brethren. This may just be old-fashioned selfishness or it may be a modern continuation of age-old tribal rivalries that were interrupted by the arrival of Europeans on this continent.

But the casino Indians’ winning streak is now threatened. Several measures on next month’s ballot would strike down agreements between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and four of the state’s richest gaming tribes. Those compacts allow installation of 22,000 new slot machines in five casinos. The state Legislature ratified the agreements last summer. The Feb. 5 propositions are referenda, a ballot tactic allowing voters to reverse the actions of legislators.

The last time voters encountered a truly significant referendum came in 1982, when they nixed a plan to build a “peripheral canal” around the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to bring more water to Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area and solve salinity problems in the delta itself.

This time, voters are being asked whether they want to veto expansion of gambling, OK’d by Schwarzenegger because the new compacts would see the gaming tribes pay the state about $9 billion over the next 20 years, between $300 million and $400 million per year.

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With the current governor, it’s all about money. Never mind that studies show placing many casinos - including the five whose expansion is contemplated here - on the edge of urban areas creates huge numbers of new gambling addicts who regularly lose their rent and food money to slot machines and other games where the odds are stacked seriously in favor of the house.

Early polling showed slightly over half of likely voters favoring the compacts, but that was before labor unions, left out tribes, horse racing interests and card room operators began campaigning for the referenda and against the new gaming compacts.

Field Polls director Mark DeCamillo told one reporter the outcome will depend largely on what voters think of Indian gaming in general. Those who like it will support expansion; those who don’t will vote to keep it from growing.

So far, the Morongo, Sycuan, Agua Caliente and Pechanga tribes - all operating large casinos and hotels near Palm Springs or San Diego - have invested more than $40 million in their campaign for the compacts. They began running pro-expansion television commercials last fall and they’ve hired prominent consultants to orchestrate their campaign.

Opponents only recently began running ads that stress the new compacts would create casinos larger than any in Las Vegas. Their point is a variation on the “if you build it, they will come” theme. Essentially, they argue that allowing huge numbers of new slot machines will increase the temptation already pulling gamblers into casinos and might even draw hundreds of thousands who now confine their gambling to the state lottery.

The compacts would not exist, of course, if Schwarzenegger didn’t believe gambling is a sound source of state revenue. He also sought last fall to sell off the state lottery in order to finance expansion of health care coverage.

But the real issue in these referenda isn’t any of that. For pollster DiCamillo is right in his assessment of what will motivate voters. Which means approval or disapproval of the proposed new compacts will depend on whether most voters believe Indian gambling is good for California, or has been a serious mistake from the start.

Elias is author of the bestselling book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.” His e-mail address is tdelias@aol.com.

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