When California voters passed Proposition 5 in 2000, allowing the creation of Indian casinos, few foresaw the replacement of card parlors with huge resorts, shows featuring Clay Aiken and rows of glittering, clanking slot machines. In a rush to compensate Native Americans for years of poverty, abuse and isolation, Californians didn't think about that cynical adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Seemingly overnight, Indian gaming has become an $8 billion industry in California that could eclipse the state trucking industry, the dairy industry — and perhaps even the Hollywood film industry one day. Monthly checks of $30,000 paid to each adult tribal member are not uncommon, and much of the wealth flows to a tiny group of Native Americans among the state's 108 federally recognized tribes.

On February 5, voters will be asked to enact propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97, which would give an additional 17,000 slot machines to the Sycuan, Pechanga, Morongo and Agua Caliente tribes — 2,100 wealthy Southern Californians who control more than a third of the state's Indian gaming industry but wouldn't fill the seats of the Kodak Theatre.

The ballot measures would allow the tribes to get around California's tough Environmental Quality Act — they'd instead submit “Tribal Environmental Impact Reports” — and wipe out the current 55-day public-comment period on casino traffic congestion, habitat disruption and other environmental issues, says Cheryl A. Schmit of Stand Up for California.

Last summer, these proposals sailed through legislative approvals in Sacramento, where the tribes are monied special interests as powerful as HMOs and the prison guards' union. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backed the casino expansions, arguing that casino growth in Southern California is good for the budget. But well-funded opponents — two rival gaming tribes, the guy who sued those tribes, and a hospitality workers' union — gathered 3 million signatures to place the expansion plans before voters and take the decision away from Schwarzenegger.

The two sides have now spent over $100 million, the costliest initiative fight in California history, and possibly in history, period. The tribes have poured $82.7 million into a media campaign that dwarfs most previous ballot efforts in California. The less well-funded opponents have spent $25.9 million.

The public is left not so much in the middle as somewhere off to the side. That free fall in support represents a huge change in public attitude, with voters increasingly skeptical about Indian gaming.

As Cal State San Bernardino economics professor Eric Nilson points out, the tribes' spin that the measures would help California's budget is “an illusion, really,” because the money people spend at casinos is money not spent elsewhere in the economy, where it generates significant taxes — unlike Indian-casino revenue.

“When someone goes to a casino and loses $500, that's money not spent at a local restaurant, at the video store or at a local mall — all businesses that pay state taxes,” says Nilson. “The casino pays no state or local taxes on that money. This is just shifting money around.”

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