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Tribal Warfare

Even with the current housing slump, a paltry $1.6 million still won’t buy you much of a house on the Westside. Maybe an older 3 + 2 with a fiberglass carport. Better to invest your money in Sacramento, where the same tidy sum can buy you an entire legislative house — in this case, the California state Senate, packed wall to wall with senators ready to serve your every desire. A million six is how much a conglomerate of wealthy Indian gambling tribes spent on recent campaign contributions to key members of the state Democratic leadership, and it garnered an almost instant return.

With little media notice, and certainly with no real public debate, the state Senate fast-tracked a package of five new gambling deals with California’s richest tribes and overwhelmingly voted 22-10 to approve them last week.

These deals, if ratified by the Assembly, would constitute one of the largest expansions of legalized gambling in the history of America, opening the floodgates to tens of thousands of new slot machines (added to our current state fleet of 60,000), and would pave the way for a number of new Nevada-class casinos. All these goodies would be showered on the handful of California tribes already marinating in millions of annual gambling dollars, so one thing’s for sure: This has nothing to do with giving a helping hand to poor, underprivileged Native Americans. The California Indian gaming industry now takes in more than $7 billion in revenue, outstripping the collective intake of Las Vegas Strip casinos.

Hard to feel sorry for gambling moguls of this ilk. Here’s what The Economist magazine says about the current status of the Morongo: “As for the Morongo, most no longer do any paid work at all. The 775 adult members of the tribe receive seven-tenths of the casino’s profits in dividends (the rest is spent by the tribal government). The exact sum is kept secret, but Robert Martin, the tribal chairman, allows that it is roughly $15,000 to $20,000 per person, per month. Not surprisingly, some people have rediscovered their Morongo roots and moved back to the reservation. As Mr. Martin observes wryly: ‘It wasn’t fashionable to be Indian until recently.’ ”

The ramrodding of these measures through the Senate, with an able assist from Governor Schwarzenegger, in no way guarantees their approval in the Assembly, where resistance remains fierce. At the end of last year’s legislative session, the Assembly refused to vote on the agreements. Sticking points were less-than-full rights by labor to organize the low-wage casino workers and lack of sufficient regulatory and fiscal oversight of the casinos. That was the argument put forth by one of the few Democratic senators who voted against the compacts. “I can’t vote for an expansion of gambling,” Senator Sheila Kuehl, D–Santa Monica, said. “I can’t vote for organizations that now refuse to take care of their workers in any fair way that we require of virtually everyone else in the state.”

After last Thursday’s vote in the Senate, prospects in the Assembly were still far from rosy. Northern California Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, a Democrat, said the gambling deals that sprinted through the Senate in no way softened the stiff opposition in the Assembly, led by himself and Democratic House Speaker Fabian Núñez. “Those five compacts... do not have the votes to be ratified... on the Assembly floor,” Torrico said. “I’m certain of that.”

Those were not pretty words to the ears of the Governator. Once a fierce critic of unbridled gambling expansion, Arnold has decided it’s better to be inside the tepee looking out instead of outside pissing in. He quietly dropped more-stringent labor, environmental and regulatory demands written into earlier draft compacts and now has signed off on deals that relieve the tribes of substantial accountability.

The Governor’s Office also claims that signing the new contracts will reap $500 million or more per year in payments from the tribes, all of which would be obligated to return a certain cut of the slot revenues to state coffers. Only glitch here is that the state’s own Legislative Office has said that the governor is grossly overinflating that amount and, worse, that the state lacks any serious capacity to audit the tribal books to make sure California isn’t getting short-stacked. A spate of other recent reports warns that problem and pathological gambling is growing rapidly in the state, with virtually no resources available for those seeking rehab, and that as much as 75 percent of the gaming industry is operating with next to no oversight or serious regulation.

The next few months may see a dramatic standoff develop between the Senate’s Democratic leadership, allied with the high-roller tribes, and the Assembly Democrats led by Núñez, who is allied with the powerful hotel workers union that opposes the deal. Núñez has been trying to piece together a side agreement between the tribes and the unions that would deflate the organizing-rights issue and open the way for ratification of the compacts.

But now it looks like the tribes aren’t going to sit patiently to work things out with Núñez. Starting this week, the wealthy Morongo tribe, near Palm Springs (which stands to triple its number of slot machines if the deal is approved), has launched a $1.25-million-a-week campaign of TV advertising spots aimed at winning the hearts and minds of California voters. With the Assembly taking as much as a month or more to get around to considering the compacts, outside observers expect the eventual ad buy from the Morongos to run from $3 million to $5 million as deliberations stretch out. The tribes are old hands at injecting strategic amounts of cash in order to manipulate elections. In 2001, the Morongos financed a last-minute $200,000 radio campaign that successfully torpedoed Antonio Villaraigosa’s first run against Mayor James Hahn. In succeeding municipal, congressional and Assembly elections, the Morongos and the four other California tribes wanting the expansion deals have spent tens of millions in campaign dollars to defend their monopoly gambling privileges.

Their latest rumored threat seems ominous. Reports now circulate that if the tribes don’t get their way with the Assembly, they will directly intervene with millions of dollars in next February’s special balloting on the issue of extending legislative term limits. This is Fabian Núñez’s pet project — one on which he is banking the extension of his own career. He knows that to come out ahead, this might be the time to go to the mats against the tribes.

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