WITH HIS SIGNATURE now on the official ballot arguments in favor of four measures that would grant the largest Indian gambling expansion in recent history, Governor Schwarzenegger has formalized his greatest historic flip-flop.

It’s been quite a sorry journey for the Guv: from 2003, when he first ran to replace Gray Davis and, in doing so, directly confronted, with bulldog vigor, the virtually unregulated and untaxed Indian gambling lobby, to today, when he has become that special-interest group’s private, little (and neutered) puppy. Sit, Arnold, sit. Good boy.

Schwarzenegger’s signing of the pro-expansion ballot arguments comes as no surprise, since he’s the guy who negotiated the deals last year with the state’s four already-richest tribes. The gambling compacts were then ratified into law by the Democratic-controlled Legislature after Speaker Fabian Núñez rather dramatically betrayed his traditional allies in organized labor who opposed the pacts. But a coalition of those same unions, racetrack and card-club owners, and two other, competing tribes gathered enough signatures to put the compacts up for popular vote on next February’s ballot. With the measures now certified and $2 million worth of special pamphlets being printed by the state just to explain the complex issue, the governor has suited up, tying on his shoulder pads — and his kneepads — ready to lead the political charge on behalf of the casinos.

This time, however, the hill he has chosen to challenge might be a tad too steep for a gentleman of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s age and declining physique. The most recent polls show the gambling-expansion measures’ popularity hovering at about 50 percent — a very dangerous starting point for any ballot initiative, since they tend to decline in appeal as voting day nears. People are crazy, but they’re not stupid, and it’s become an increasingly tough argument to make that a virtual corporate cartel of small tribes — already raking in hundreds of millions per year each — should be given state license to, in some cases, triple the number of slot machines they already have.

Problem is, the tribes have those stacks of millions ready to go to convince the voters otherwise. The four Indian gambling enterprises, led by the Pechanga and Agua Caliente tribes, have already spent an estimated $20 million on a campaign that has barely even started. And they are very likely to spend double or triple that total by the time ballots are cast.

First, the tribes tried unsuccessfully to block the signature gathering needed to qualify the compact-repeal measures. Then, they went to court, so far unsuccessfully, to try to convince judges that the people of California somehow didn’t have the right to vote on such matters. Now, the tribes have unfurled a blanket of TV commercials that are, quite frankly, based on a conscious deception.

The spots open with tenebrous headlines warning of looming budget cuts and that “California Faces Potential $11 Billion Deficit.” The voice-over then informs the voters of pending doom if the tribes aren’t given more gambling devices in return for a negotiated kickback to the state:

“Our state faces serious budget deficits. But the new gaming agreements with four Southern California Indian tribes will help. The tribes will pay a much higher percentage of their gaming revenues to the state, providing more than $9 billion to help balance the state budget and fund vital services statewide. Without these agreements, billions of dollars would disappear from the state budget and our state would get nothing.”

There’s one glitch here. No, make that two. While the implication is that the $9 billion in new revenue from the tribes would pretty much fill this year’s possible $11 billion budget hole, the tribes forgot to tell you that the $9 bil is estimated to come in over the next 20 years. Indeed, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office projected that the actual increased state revenue from the gambling expansion would initially result in something closer to a few hundred million per year — little more than what the political fight over these measures is going to wind up costing. Oh yeah, and if the compacts are not approved by the voters, exactly nothing will “disappear” from the state budget, as the state currently receives exactly nothing in revenue from these tribes.

None of this is to say the tribes are going to lose. Regardless of whatever bark the governor retains as their public attack Chihuahua, the tribes will spend limitlessly to see this through. And their opponents are not nearly as wealthy. There’s also the residual moral-blackmail factor, which leads well-intentioned voters to ballot in favor of the Indians, thinking they’re giving a hand to some round-faced cherub they see on a Council of Indian Nations flier instead of a handout to hardball corporate gaming clans.

In the meantime, the state Republican Party has quietly endorsed the pacts. And the Democrats? After Núñez and the Dem-controlled state Legislature ratified the compacts, the Dems’ executive committee declared itself “neutral” on the ballot measure. Isn’t that cute?

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