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Arnold's Bad Hand

GOVERNOR ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER came barreling into office three years ago opposing the unlimited expansion of Indian gambling, but now, unfortunately, he has switched sides. Though full-blown casinos can now be found on the edge of every metropolitan center in the state, the governor cut a half-dozen deals in the past few weeks to allow 23,000 more slot machines, the equivalent of eight Las Vegas casinos.

We need this like California needs 23,000 more smoke-belching diesel buses.

While Arnold justified the move by emphasizing that the new casinos would have to pay a sizable cut of their rake to the state, most of these deals favored the wealthiest tribes in California, small groups already cashing in to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Some of the favored tribes, like the Agua Caliente Band near Palm Springs, already operate two fabulously lucrative casinos, not to mention owning literally half the land in the Springs. Allowing them to open a third casino, as Schwarzenegger proposed, is as absurd as the IRS giving Tony Soprano an open-ended extension on filing his taxes.

Californians were suckered into approving Indian gambling in the last decade by a PR campaign that stressed “self-reliance”; that is, getting the oppressed tribes off welfare. But at this juncture, green-lighting more machines and more casinos for favored tribes already rolling in dough is a gross collective insult. Some of these tribes have shown themselves to be among the most cutthroat special interests in the state, often working together to deny poorer tribes the ability to compete. The Agua Caliente have also spent millions resisting unionization of their low-wage workers. The San Manuel tribe, which would triple their number of slots under the Schwarzenegger proposal to a staggering total of 5,500, is leading a national fight to deny Indian casino workers protection under federal labor law. These tribes argue that they should be allowed to pour hundreds of millions of bucks into buying influence in the American electoral process, but that when it comes to labor and environmental enforcement, they should be considered “sovereign” nations exempt from U.S. regulation. Anything else you would like with that cake, Chief?

USED TO ADROITLY GAMING THEIR WAY through Sacramento, the high-rolling tribes unexpectedly crapped out last week in the Capitol. The Democratic Legislature, which has recently been all too happy to sop up $200 million in Indian political contributions, at least temporarily kiboshed all six gaming-expansion deals, postponing any action until early next year. The Dems also get big bucks from organized labor, and this time the unions were able to outbid and outplay the Indians. The tribes might have overplayed their hand earlier this year, when they quietly persuaded the governor to replace his longtime tribal negotiator, David Kolkey. Though originally a Pete Wilson appointee, Kolkey — much to his credit — had been rock-solid in insisting that all new state casino agreements guarantee full rights for labor to organize unions. With Kolkey out of the way, the gambling compacts that Arnold cooked up this past month — for the first time — eliminated those rights.

Labor brought all of its clout to bear on the Dems and successfully blocked, for the moment, the proposed gambling giveaways. The issue is hardly dead, however. “I am committed to working with California’s tribal nations over the next several months on these important compacts that will result in a mutually beneficial outcome,” Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez said last week. “The tribal nations deserve no less than the respectful consideration by the Legislature.” Sure, they do. Especially when they are one of the major financial sponsors of Núñez’s political party.

In the coming months, then, Núñez and the Dems and their new ally, the governor, will be working behind the scenes to amend these compacts, perhaps reinserting enough labor rights to palliate the union objections. That might be a small step forward, but still in the wrong direction. The rich tribes don’t need, and certainly don’t deserve, any more slot machines, and they certainly require no more casinos — with or without unions. Self-reliance is one thing. But expanding the money-printing presses to small tribes that already pocket tens of millions per month is nothing short of an outrageous mockery.

If gambling is to be at all expanded in California, then at least let it favor the largest and poorest tribes, many of whom still live in trailers without running water and have had to resort to hunger strikes in an attempt to break the gambling monopoly currently held by big-bucks groups like the Agua Caliente and San Manuel.?

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