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By Japhet Weeks
Big labor and big gambling are clashing this year in California's most expensive proposition fight to date. On Feb. 5, voters will decide whether or not to ratify four Indian gaming compacts that were passed by the California state legislature last summer, signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and approved by the federal government.
The compacts would allow four Southern California tribes — the Agua Caliente, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, the Pechanga Band of Luise?±o Indians and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians — to add upwards of 17,000 Nevada-style slot machines to their casinos. In exchange, the tribes would funnel more gambling revenues into the state's general fund rather than earmarking that money for payments to non-gaming tribes, assistance programs for problem gamblers and local governments affected by the casinos, as previous compacts have done.
According to a report by the California Legislative Analyst, the new slot machines would add at least $131 million to the state's coffers annually. Over the next two decades that amount could increase to the "low to mid hundreds of millions of dollars, lasting until 2030," the report said.
Which is why Gov. Schwarzenegger can be seen in Yes for California television ads enthusiastically touting the "billions and billions of dahllas" that will help pull California out of its sinking debt. The top donors for the "Yes" campaign — who have already spent $21 million on television ads alone — are the four Southern California tribes who will benefit from passage of the gaming compacts.
The top two donors for the other side — No on the Unfair Gambling Deals — are United Auburn Indian Community of the Auburn Rancheria and the Pala Band of Mission Indians. They're worried that expansion by the four tribes will significantly cut into their own business. The third largest donor is Unite HERE, a union group that has given $3 million to defeat the compacts, which they claim will hamper unionization at the four tribes' casinos. Specifically, the new compacts fail to provide casino workers with a "card check," which allows workers to unionize simply by collecting a majority of signatures, regardless of whether or not the tribe agrees. Under the new compacts, casino workers would be allowed to unionize, but by secret ballot only. Unions generally don't like the secret ballot method, because it gives employers warning that a drive is underway and therefore allows them an opportunity to counter it.
John Travis, a professor of political science at Humboldt State and a board member of the California Faculty Association, says he's voting no on Props 94-97. His main concern is that the compacts make unionization difficult. But he also argues that the compacts fail to provide adequate oversight for casino operations, ultimately leaving it up to the tribes to determine how much money to give to the state. The Legislative Analyst's report, however, suggests otherwise, noting that the compacts require independent audits.
Still, Travis says, the revenues the new compacts will generate are not a panacea for California's many budget woes. "When you think about the size of the dilemma that we're facing this year, that [revenues from the compacts] doesn't make a big dent in it," he said last week.
But California's largest Indian tribe, the Yurok, seems to disagree. They supported the four compacts when the state legislature voted them into law last year. As for the referenda, Yurok Executive Director Ralph Simon said Monday that the tribe hasn't taken a formal position.
The Yurok depend on the $1.1 million annual payment they receive from the Revenue Sharing Trust Fund, a pot of money designated for the state's 71 non-gaming tribes that comes directly from Indian gaming revenues. In the new compacts, according to Simon, the RSTF will get an injection of $5.8 million extra dollars, but whereas before, when the RSTF dried up, tribes dipped into the Special Distribution Fund — money reserved for problem gamblers, agencies that regulate tribal casinos and grants to local governments affected by casinos — now that money will have to come directly from the state's general fund. And that's raised some eyebrows among the Yurok. "The concern for the RSTF tribes," Simon said, "is whether there is a mechanism in state law to make that short fill transfer mandatory."
Another concern of the Yurok, unrelated to the compacts themselves, has to do with the referendum process. "Submitting these compacts to a statewide vote is really upsetting," Simon said. Since 1988, when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, gaming compacts have been decided on between states and tribes. Simon is concerned that an uninformed electorate might make the wrong decision on issues that should be left to state legislators and sovereign nations.
But the Yurok may have nothing to worry about. A Jan. 24 Field Poll reported 42 percent of voters in favor of the compacts, 37 percent opposed and 21 percent still undecided.
Virgil Moorehead, chairman of the Big Lagoon Rancheria, made up his mind a long time ago, and he's opposed to the compacts. That's because Big Lagoon Rancheria's push last year to build a casino in Barstow was stymied by the same four tribes that are backing the "Yes" campaign.
Moorehead, who described those tribes last week as "pretty self-serving" and with an enormous amount of sway in Sacramento, said that if the compacts pass, they will give the four tribes an unfair edge in the local gambling market. "If you're down the street, trying to get a couple of more slot machines, these guys can just squish you," he said.
But some worry that the four tribes already have too much power, and may even be able to get the compacts through no matter what the electorate decides on Feb. 5. The compacts have already been approved by the U.S Department of the Interior, with a special nudge by Gov. Schwarzenegger, according to a Jan. 17 report in The Sacramento Bee. That means that even if the compacts are repealed by voters on Feb. 5, the tribes might be able to sue the state and win.
But Scott Macdonald of Woodward and McDowell, the ballot measure advocacy firm that's running the "No" campaign, is optimistic that California voters will have the final say.
"When these are voted down," he said last week from his Southern California office, "there's nothing for the federal government to have ever reviewed. The bottom line is in the referendum process these deals are in a state of suspended animation."
In the end, whether the compacts are repealed or not might still be a moot point. Not because of what could happen, but because of what already has.
Amidst the sound and fury of a $100 million proposition fight, another large California tribe, the San Manuel Band, managed to sign a compact last year identical to the ones on the Feb. 5 ballot. But that compact, for which there is no referendum, seems to have passed under the radar of groups clamoring about the bad precedent the four other compacts will set.
San Manuel is one of the state's smallest tribes, but its casino, which already has 2,000 slot machines, is one of California's busiest. Under the new deal, it will be able to add another 7,500 slot machines.
Why is no one crying foul? It might have something to do with the fact that the employees of San Manuel's casino — unlike those of the four other tribes — are already represented by a union, the Communication Workers of America. And according to a September article from the Copley News Service, Unite HERE, the organization that has generously funded the "No" campaign, supports San Manuel's compact. Which makes one wonder: Who are these compacts really unfair to — Californians or unions?