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California Gambling Control Commission holds initial meeting

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Tribal governments and gaming opponents took a giant first step at compromise at an open meeting of the California Gambling Control Commission at the state capitol.

The Dec. 7 session was the first full meeting of the commission created by the state Legislature in 1997 though Gov. Gray Davis made no appointments until last summer.

A host of prominent tribal leaders and gaming advocates sought to voice opinions on a variety of "gray area" issues in the state-tribal gaming compact. Perhaps the most important related to the Revenue Sharing Fund section of the compact.

This fund comes of the historic decision by the larger gaming tribes to share profits with their non-gaming cousins and paid out of initial and quarterly fees on machine licenses. One point that has to be resolved centers around smaller tribes which operate fewer than 350 licensed machines. The compact is unclear whether these tribes have the right to a share in the fund or not.

Also being debated was whether non-gaming tribes should receive a share of the revenue proportionate to the number of members in the tribe or a standard, flat fee.

Some tribal members spoke out and said the money should be distributed by size. Michelle Le Beaux, of the Monteaux and Peebles law firm which specializes in tribal issues, said she felt it would only be fair to distribute the money equally to all eligible non-gaming tribes.

Since the methodology for distribution is not clearly stated, it is up to the commission to come up with one. Once this has happened, they have to report it to the state Legislature for approval and distribute the checks within 30 days. Some tribal sources said their tribes have already budgeted the money and were concerned about possible delays since the commission has not made it clear when they will make a decision.

Rumored attempts to pack the meeting with allies of anti-gaming advocates, Stand Up for California, did not materialize. Instead organization co-director Cheryl Schmit gave public comment that reflected a far more moderate tone than in the past regarding Indian gaming.

Schmit surprised tribal gaming advocates by calling for a repeal of the May 15 deadline to have all licensed machines operational. This represents the deadline imposed last May when tribes had a confidential "draw" to determine the number of machines each could operate. The language of the compact states that each tribe must have the machines operational in one year after obtaining the license.

"This deadline is unfair in that it is forcing tribes to hurriedly construct and expand casinos haphazardly without regard to solid future community planning. It is of no benefit to either the tribes or their neighbors" Schmit said.

She also addressed five other points for consideration by the commission, most dealing with compact amendments to address community concerns.

Tribal gaming consultant Michael Lombardi said while he agrees the May 15 deadline should be lifted, he thinks that Schmit's other points set a dangerous precedent in amending the compact.

"First of all most of her points are outside the scope of the authority of the Gambling Commission," Lombardi said. " Second, we are only in the first year of a 20-year agreement and already people want to amend it.

Lombardi acknowledged that Schmit and other concerned neighbors who offered public comment at least tried to be conciliatory, but thinks they do not see the historical implications. He said "concerned citizens" amended 150 years of broken treaties by the state of California before they could be fully implemented. He thinks the compact should be given a chance.

Tribal attorney Howard Dickstein said he felt the meeting was a satisfactory beginning. He thinks critical media reports of this initial meeting are missing the point.

"This is a cautious and new commission that is approaching and interpreting a new agreement and trying to establish a framework that will have to last for the next 20 years," said Dickstein.

He said any early bumps are just attempts to iron out jurisdictional issues such as whether the commission is a regulatory agency or an extension of the established Division of Gambling Control within the California Attorney General's Office.

Commission members led by Chairman John Hensley, an American Indian and former U.S. Customs official, mainly listened and have not as yet made any substantive decisions. Other members of the commission are former San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith, Michael E. Palmer, and J.K. Sasaki. Gov. Davis is expected to fill a fifth seat early next year.