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Calif. initiative could expand gaming

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A proposed ballot initiative that could potentially expand gaming beyond American Indian tribes has been submitted to the state as the first step to getting on the November 2004 ballot.

The initiative could potentially legalize slot machines at California racetracks and card clubs, who are also the main sponsors of the initiative. There is, however, one curious catch. If successful, the initiative would only take effect if tribes do not agree to give up roughly a quarter of their earnings to the state's general fund.

This echoes the campaign pledge of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to try and wrest additional amounts of gaming revenue money from the state's gaming tribes.

Gov. Schwarzenegger's office said that the governor "does not support" the proposed initiative but stopped short of saying that he would oppose it.

"Gov. Schwarzenegger would rather negotiate with the tribes directly," said a Schwarzenegger press aide who asked to not be identified.

Though most tribes and tribal organizations oppose it, it is unclear how far that opposition will go.

Derron Marquez, the chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians has said in various press reports that if the measure is eventually passed, it may not be detrimental to the tribes' fortunes, and may "throw in the towel" and not spend any resources to oppose the measure.

Marquez was taken ill and was unable to clarify his comments for Indian Country Today before press time. Indian gaming consultant Michael Lombardi characterizes Marquez' sentiment as, if passed the initiative may also ultimately allow tribes to expand their gaming bases.

Discarding the existing agreements could quite possibly allow an increase in the number of tribal slot machines which are currently capped at 3,000.

The California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), a lobbying group for tribal gaming, has expressed fairly tepid opposition. CNIGA sources say that their position is only "initial opposition," and leaves open the possibility for them to change their stance if the measure progresses.

However, gaming consultant Lombardi, who currently works for the St. Augustine Band of Mission Indians is more pointed in his attacks against the proposed measure.

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Lombardi calls the backers of the measure "special interests," and characterizes its potential passage into law as "another broken treaty." He points out that the main backers of the initiative are the owners of the large Hollywood Park racetrack and Hustler Magazine Publisher Larry Flynt, who ran for governor promising to legalize all forms of gambling in the state.

"You have a group of white millionaires that want to essentially break a three and a half-year-old agreement that the state made with the tribes," said Lombardi.

Lombardi maintains that the goal behind the initiative is to give the state greater leveraging power in negotiating greater revenue sharing with tribes. As things stand right now, the tribes have 20-year agreements with the state and there is nothing that would legally require them to go to the bargaining table with the new governor.

However, the passage of this initiative could change that scenario dramatically. Its passage would require tribes to go to the bargaining table within 90 days and agree to give up 25 percent of their revenue to the state or else gaming would be expanded to five racetracks and 11 card clubs who could then operate a total of 30,000 machines. That number is roughly equal to the existing number of slot machines in California's tribal casinos.

Another curious aspect of the proposed initiative is that it would set up a similar revenue sharing agreement with tribes who have small gaming operations or none at all. Currently the gaming tribes pay $1.1 million yearly to each of the other eligible tribes, and under the proposed initiative the additional slots would increase the pay $1.2 million annually and not require casino tribes to pay into the fund.

Though Lombardi characterizes this as a "cynical attempt to divide the tribes," it is too early to tell whether this will have any serious traction among any of the tribes who would be on the receiving end of such a fund.

The initiative also has received early backing from two prominent county sheriffs. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Sacramento Country Sheriff Lou Blanas have both gone on record as supporters, ostensibly for revenue that would go directly to law enforcement.

However, the Los Angeles Times reports that Baca received considerable support from Hollywood Park and some card clubs in Southern California.

Calls to Blanas were not returned. However Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore refutes charges that Baca is in the pockets of his supporters. He points to several programs that Baca has supported that have caused consternation with his supporters such as homeless rehabilitation, domestic abuse and jail programs.

"Because of the budget problems in California, it has encouraged (Sheriff Baca) to seek alternative forms of law enforcement funding," said Whitmore.

For the measure to qualify for next November's ballot backers would have to collect nearly 600,000 signatures and pass in the general election. Thus far, the proposed bill does not yet have a title or summary and has only been filed with the state attorney general's office.

The proposed initiative represents the latest attempt by the state's card clubs to legalize Las Vegas style gaming in their establishments. They unsuccessfully sued the state last year and made some legislative attempts to enter the slot machine market that also failed.