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Agua Caliente proposes initiative to redefine 'fair share'

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - One of the terms bandied about by candidates during last year's much hyped gubernatorial recall was "fair share." This was a reference to the state's casino tribes and what certain groups claimed that tribes were not paying.

Candidates as diverse as future Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican and progressive columnist Arianna Huffington claimed that more money, perhaps as much as 25 percent could be gleaned from the tribes into the state's general fund and constitute a "fair share."

Now the Palm Springs-based Agua Caliente tribe is presenting a counter proposal that seeks to redefine what a "fair share" is. During the past year the tribe has conducted a poll through Pacific Strategies, a political consultant firm, with focus groups of 1,200 voters from the last election to help them decide what "fair share" means to the public.

Agua Caliente Chairman Richard Milanovich reports that the group defined "fair share" as paying the current taxation rate on California's corporations, which is at 8.84 percent

Thus the tribe is proposing a ballot initiative that would seek to have tribes pay the corporate rate in exchange for allowing tribes to expand their gaming facilities to include currently banned card games as well as lifting the current cap of 2,000 machines.

"What we are saying is let [the tribal gaming industry] be market driven," declared Milanovich.

The proposed initiative comes on the heels of another proposal backed by California's horse racing and card club industries. This initiative seeks to force tribes to pay 25 percent of their revenue to the state's general fund or lose their monopoly on slot machines by allowing expansion into the horse racetracks and card clubs.

Since passage of both propositions would result in a conflicting law perhaps the most interesting thing about the competing initiatives is that if both proposals were to pass, the one with the most votes would take precedence and would essentially be a winner takes all scenario.

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What is unclear is whether other tribes will back Agua on the proposal. Milanovich has been darting to meetings with other tribes all week and is as of yet unable to name a fellow backer of the proposed initiative.

However, it is still very early in the game and many tribal gaming sources say they have not yet had a chance to review the proposal and consequently are not willing to talk on the record regarding the new proposed initiative.

This group includes the California Indian Nations Gaming Association (CNIGA), the largest Indian gaming lobby group, who said they have not had a chance to consult with their members regarding the initiative.

A spokesman for Gov. Schwarzenegger said that his boss is focused on current negotiations with tribes and has not had a chance to review the Agua Caliente proposal.

Even Milanovich admitted that it may be a hard sell for some tribes though he feels that it is the best option for the tribal interests. Though the proposed initiative would not effect compacts already in place it would provide a basis for future compacts and potentially lure tribes to renegotiate who are seeking to expand their gaming operations.

Excepting tribes who only recently signed gaming compacts that agreed to share a small percentage with the state's general fund, existing compacts only require tribes to pay into two funds. One fund is for local governments and the other is a special trust fund set up to distribute funds to non-gaming tribes and those with small operations.

Milanovich claimed that under the proposed initiative that revenues for the two funds would double based on reasoning that expanding gaming operations to match market demand would increase revenues to these funds.

Milanovich reported that the proposed initiative is ready to begin the process of collecting signatures. The rival card club and racetrack backed initiative was approved this week by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer and will begin collecting signatures immediately. The Agua Caliente initiative will have to go through the same process.

If either or both receive the qualifying number of registered voter signatures, they will qualify for the November ballot which will likely see a larger than normal turnout because of the presidential race.