By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Call it crassness, or call it pride, whatever it is, the attitude and practice of the Agua Caliente have set off a series of bloody dogfights that currently embroil the tribe.
Refusing to join the new compacts with the state, the Agua Caliente have picked a fight with Schwarzenegger by authoring Prop. 70 for this November’s state ballot. Sinking $12 million of their own money into the campaign, they also picked up a $10 million donation from the neighboring San Manuel tribe, the single largest political donation to a ballot initiative in state history. And Milanovich vows he will raise another $30 million if necessary to see the initiative through. Schwarzenegger, in his own style, has promised to crush the proposition.
Not only would Prop. 70 abrogate the newly signed compacts, but it would permit virtually unfettered expansion of Indian gambling for 99 years, and, in return, the tribes would pay back just under 9 percent of overall profits to the state. Those profits are calculated in a way, however, to minimize payments. Most significantly, if Prop. 70 were approved, it would cede almost no regulatory rights to the state and would guarantee nothing for labor.
The tribe is also at war with HERE, the hotel workers union. As soon as a unionization drive got under way last year, the tribe responded with reprisals and the deployment of two union-busting firms. When the local clergy signed on to the union campaign and two dozen protesters were arrested last April in an act of civil disobedience in front of the tribe’s Spa Casino, Milanovich brushed off the demonstrations as “meaningless” and “senseless.”
The union has put health care at the center of its campaign, slamming the tribe for not paying the coverage costs for employees’ family members. One study estimates that more than half of Agua Caliente employees resort to state welfare programs to cover their children’s health needs. The union alleges that the tribe organizes seminars for its workers so that state agency reps can explain the welfare program to them.
The tribe has bought a series of full-page newspaper ads attacking the union and has even purchased 30-minute blocks on local TV to run its own anti-union infomercial. In the last few weeks, the union and its allies in the clergy responded with a series of 13 full-size roadway billboards, scattered from Banning to Indio, that show a smiling Latino family of four and that, sarcastically, read: “Thanks taxpayers. You pay for family health care for casino workers because Agua Caliente won’t.”
But Milanovich not only has not blinked, he’s raised the stakes. Just as his tribe is lavishing millions on its own ballot proposition, he announced that starting this week, the tribe will no longer pay health-care costs for individual casino and hotel employees. To retain their insurance, the workers, many of whom only clear $17,000 a year, will now have to pay an annual $720 a year for coverage. And an additional $1,092 to cover a child. “As we’re well aware, the costs of health care are going up dramatically across the nation,” Chairman Milanovich dryly told the local newspaper.
While the Agua Caliente tribe’s anti-union stance has rankled the local clergy, its plans to redevelop and expand operations in a square-mile section of downtown Palm Springs known as Section 14 has touched off somewhat of a popular revolt — if something like that can be imagined in a town better known for golf courses than for street demonstrations. If not peasants with pitchforks, well, then, something like “pensioners with petitions.”
The tribe’s original plans for Section 14 called for a third Agua Caliente casino, four 75-foot observation towers and a mega–entertainment complex. Under public protest, the project has been radically scaled down. But the community knows that the square mile in question is “sovereign land” and, in the end, the tribe can do with it what it likes.
The fear is that the quiet and cozy, villagelike atmosphere of downtown Palm Springs, a magnet for strolling tourists and residents alike, will be spoiled by a garish gambling-centered monstrosity built by the tribe.
On a hot summer night, about 15 steamed-up residents meet in the Santa Fe–style community room of the genteel Orchid Inn. Some are typical desert retirees. The head of the local ACLU chapters is also there. So are some neighborhood-association activists, as are a couple of staffers from HERE. The guest of honor at this meeting of Citizens for Local Government Accountability, as the group is called, is Cheryl Schmit, the founder of Stand Up for California, who has flown in from her home base in Placer County and who now declares the Palm Springs fight to be the new Maginot Line against unregulated gambling expansion.
The atmosphere is rather giddy, the participants not quite ready for an unexpected success. After the Palm Springs City Council rubber-stamped tribal plans for redeveloping Section 14, this small band of activists fanned out through the sun-baked town, hoping to collect enough signatures to qualify a referendum on the city’s November ballot overturning the council’s decision. To their amazement, they did. After only a few weeks of campaigning, some 3,700 signatures were gathered, a thousand more than needed to put Measure U on the November ballot. The vote would not be binding, but a vote against the tribe might force it to reconsider.