Raising the stakes

California Democrats and Republicans unite to support a constitutional amendment allowing Indian tribes to run casinos.


Claudia Buck
August 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The debate over Indian gaming in California keeps spinning like a roulette wheel. Both the Indian tribes and their opponents -- an unusual coalition of Nevada casinos and organized labor -- keep wagering more and more money on legal challenges, voter initiatives and lobbying for legislative proposals. And where she stops, nobody knows.

The latest raising of the ante comes in the wake of last week's state Supreme Court ruling to toss out Proposition 5, the state ballot initiative that passed with 63 percent of the vote last November and would have legalized gaming on Indian lands. The court ruled that the measure violates the state's constitutional ban on so-called Nevada-style gambling -- effectively reshuffling the deck and tossing the cards into the Legislature's lap, in preparation for yet another multimillion-dollar ballot showdown.

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Gov. Gray Davis and legislative leaders are already preparing competing constitutional amendments -- which must be ratified by California voters -- that will allow gaming tribes to use the lucrative video slot machines that the court ruled illegal. "We're neither shocked nor surprised [by the court's ruling], but I can say we're very disappointed," said Mark Epstein, attorney for the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. "We're considering our options ... but one way or another, the tribes will take their case back to the people."

Even before the court's ruling, the tribes had made a good start with a massive, statewide signature-gathering effort -- and a parallel lobbying effort of lawmakers in the capital -- to put another gambling measure on the March 2000 ballot.

"The ruling really doesn't change what we're doing because we're collecting signatures at a pace that was Herculean anyway," said Bill Arno, co-owner of Arno Political Consultants, whose firm has stationed more than 1,000 paid signature-gatherers outside shopping centers and on street corners statewide, paying them the highest rate of any ballot measure this season: $2 a signature.

Lawmakers raked in jackpots of campaign contributions from politically savvy casino tribes during the last election. Having showered the state's lawmakers with money, California's casino tribes appear to be reaping their political reward. No fewer than three proposed constitutional amendments on Indian gaming were circulating in the Capitol and statewide as of last week. As one Republican lawmaker put it: "Everyone is trying to show the tribes they're sympathetic to their plight."

The most recent lifesaver bobbed to the surface late last week when two unlikely political soul-mates -- Republican Sen. Jim Brulte, co-chairman for George Bush's California presidential campaign, and liberal Democrat Richard Polanco -- began asking lawmakers to support their effort to revive the issue. One can place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in two ways: by gathering enough signatures, or by receiving two-thirds support in both houses of the Legislature.

The pairing of conservative Brulte and the liberal Polanco underscores the unlikely alliances that have long characterized the Indian gaming debate in California. When the Proposition 5 campaign heated up in last year's election, it found church groups linking arms with Nevada casinos and labor unions against a coalition of wealthy casino tribes who were supported by sympathetic legislators and citizens from both ends of the political spectrum.

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But the Brulte-Polanco proposal flies in the face of another proposed constitutional amendment floated last week by Gov. Davis and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, when they met with 25 tribal leaders in the wake of last week's court decision. Burton and Davis sought to reassure the tribes that their lucrative tribal casinos, which reaped more than $1 billion in revenues in 1997 alone, would remain in operation. They discussed the possibility of reaching a compromise ballot initiative that could be placed before voters next March.

In the meantime, Davis has tried to keep the feds at bay. The U.S. Justice Department is poised to shut down hundreds of illegal video slot machines at tribal casinos in Southern California, but Davis has made a personal plea to Attorney General Janet Reno to hold up any enforcement action until the state has had a chance to sort out its options.

"This has been a fast-breaking series of events," said Waltona Manion, spokeswoman for the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. "The tribes are weighing their options on a daily basis."

But with the Legislature set to adjourn for the year on Sept. 10, time is running short.

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Like the governor and Burton, both Brulte and Polanco were recipients of generous Indian campaign contributions. But Brulte was characteristically blunt as to why he believes putting Proposition 5 back on the ballot is better than a new ballot proposal worked out by the governor and Burton.

"The last time Burton teamed up with a governor to help the Indians, the Indians got screwed," said Brulte, referring to a highly restrictive gaming agreement that was negotiated by Gov. Pete Wilson and carried in the Legislature by Burton. That compact was welcomed by labor unions but so hated by casino tribes that they took their case directly to the voters in what became the state's costliest initiative campaign ever.

The governor's proposal could be problematic for casino tribes who have typically balked at any effort to limit the number of slot machines on Indian lands. Davis is no fan of gaming and has said he doesn't want to see "a major expansion." Also at issue are labor concerns over the right to unionize casino employees. And racetrack and card-room owners are expected to try to get their "hooks" attached to any gaming ballot measure proposed by the Legislature.

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By contrast, Brulte and Polanco propose to simply bring Proposition 5 back to the voters as a constitutional amendment. There is a parallel movement to put the same measure on the ballot by collecting signatures on the street, in case the Legislature balks. Regardless of how it arrives on the ballot, it appears all but certain that voters will again be asked to support Indian casinos in the next election.

"Voters have already weighed in on this so we're not re-inventing the wheel," said Brulte, whose Southern California district has four casino tribes. "People have already been very clear what their position is on Prop. 5."

But both Brulte and Polanco vowed that their bill would not result in a political dogfight pitting their proposal against the Burton-Davis version. "I don't see these as competing," said Brulte. "There's no battle until they come up with something, and nobody knows what's in the Burton proposal. We've given the governor and Burton something to strive for."

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Claudia Buck

Claudia Buck is an associate editor of the California Journal.

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