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Analysis: Tribes unsettled with California in transition

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - On one of those Northern California fall days where the sun shone intermittently, Arnold Schwarzenegger took the oath for the office of governor of California. Like the unsettled autumn weather many California tribes do not know what to expect from the man now known as the governor.

During an unconventional recall campaign that was fraught with animosity between the new governor and the state's Indian tribes, particularly the ones with gaming establishments, many are holding their breath as Schwarzenegger settles into office.

Though there were certainly divisive moments during the campaign, Schwarzenegger's communications contingent insisted that the actor turned politician would be fair to tribes and cited his history of visiting reservations in his role as a President George Herbert Walker Bush's fitness advisor and for philanthropic projects.

There were even some whisperings throughout Indian country of Schwarzenegger's long standing personal friendship with individual American Indians.

At the same time, during the campaign Schwarzenegger relentlessly assailed tribes; calling them a "special interest" and insisted that they pay "their fair share" and cited models in New York state and Connecticut where tribes pay as much as 25 percent of their casino earnings to the state.

Equally mixed is the tribal assessment of outgoing Governor Gray Davis' record on Indian relations. While initially seen as a big tribal booster, Davis often faced a rocky road with some of the state's larger gaming tribes who were at odds with Davis over a host of issues ranging from political appointments to legislation.

Davis leaves behind a 30-year political career. Given his longevity in state government, tribes had at least some clue as to what to expect when Davis assumed the office in January 1999, though he often did not live up to those expectations. Schwarzenegger, the political novice, offers only the smallest of glimpses as to what to expect as he assumes the top job in the state.

What is clear is that both men have and will try to wrest at least a billion dollars in revenue from the state's gaming tribes. Sources in the Schwarzenegger camp have said that their boss is not anti-tribal casinos and gaming tribes are speculating that the incoming governor might actually agree to expand Indian gaming as a way of getting the money that he wants from tribes.

For his part, Davis had hinted around this possibility earlier this year, after he had announced a staggering $38 billion budget shortfall and was looking for $1.5 billion tribal gaming dollars to help bail out the state. However, Davis eventually decided not to use this as a bargaining tool and cut the amount that he was seeking from tribes nearly in half.

It remains to be seen if his successor is anymore adept at getting tribes to cough up the loot. Most of the 61 gaming compacts that tribes have signed with the state remain in effect until 2018, and without proper incentive to renegotiate, many might simply opt to wait for another governor to renegotiate their deals.

The tribes insist that Schwarzenegger's revenue request is unreasonable. They cite the fact that a casino in Connecticut, such as Mashantucket Pequot operated Foxwoods has 6,000 machines while California prohibits any more than 2,000 at any

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single establishment.

Many California tribal casinos have fewer than 500 machines and their tribal operators insist that it would mean bankruptcy for them if they were to give 25 percent of their revenue.

Some tribal quarters even balk at the very notion of contributing anything to the state's general fund, something that the original 1999 compacts did not require them to do. During compact renegotiations this year Gov. Davis was only able to get a few smaller gaming operations to include language in their compacts that agreed to contribute only as much as five percent of their earnings to the general fund.

The very notion of giving anything to state has drawn some criticism from some of the more ardent tribes, who after years of neglect and abuse form the state are wary of giving away any tribal sovereignty to the state of California.

At a recent conference in Sacramento, Frank Ducheneax, one of the architects of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988 said it was against the spirit of the act for tribes to give any money to the state and that these kind of agreements undermined the original act. He said that tribes were governments first and not just average business owners.

Be that as it may, others cite practical concerns with neighbors and large casinos certainly operate in much the same way as other businesses, though tribal casinos are often likened to state lotteries as revenue generators. They certainly fill this function as well, providing funds for tribal services and infrastructure.

Schwarzenegger's predecessor in the governor's seat and one of his self-described heroes, Ronald Reagan, was the president who singed IGRA into law. Reagan supported the law based on the Republican ideal of weaning tribes off of government assistance by opening them up to the marketplace.

Several prominent state Republicans, including state Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert want to lift the cap anyway and are perhaps indicative of the kind of resistance that Schwarzenegger might face from his own party.

One unexamined factor is a recent upsurge in tribal casino foes who are put off by an increasing number of urban casino proposals often far from the tribe's land base. An increasing number of the state's voters are saying that when they approved the amendment to the California constitution, known as Proposition 1A, they only expected tribal gaming to be held on tribal lands.

An indication of how far this backlash has gone was a recent poll in liberal Sonoma County, where voters overwhelmingly approved the proposition in March 2000. A majority of voters there now say they would not vote for Proposition 1A if the election were held today.

What is clear is that Schwarzenegger tapped into that backlash during his campaign. However, American political history has proven that it is best to expect the unexpected. Remember that America is also the country where "it took Nixon to go to China" is a political adage. For the next few years, what most Californians understood would be the remainder of Davis' gubernatorial term, the only thing tribes can expect is the unexpected.