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Expensive investment, extensive return

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The campaign to expand tribal gaming in California has cost more than $65 million to date and is nearing the saturation point, according to a statewide poll. The non-partisan Field Poll reported that with two weeks left until the vote, public awareness reached 70 percent. It was barely 25 percent two weeks ago. While the margins are too narrow at this point for either side to rest easy heading into the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday vote, one thing is certain. This campaign, launched by four tribes and their supporters, is unprecedented in its expense and scope. While many observers in Indian country wonder if there are better ways to spend these funds, just as many are encouraged that some Indian tribes are in a position to participate in such concerted, high-profile efforts.

The tribes at the center of this campaign - the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians - are among the most successful gaming tribes in California. Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97 call for increased tribal revenue sharing (up to 25 percent) in exchange for the ability to install 17,000 more slot machines at their existing casinos. The tribes' mainly self-funded campaign has become a juggernaut, enlisting the endorsement of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a broad coalition of state organizations. The governor himself appears in an ad urging voters to approve the ballot measures.

All of this is in sharp contrast to the publicity Schwarzenegger sought a few years ago, when he denounced and insulted all tribes for not paying their ''fair share'' of gaming revenues to the state. The shakedown occurred during a heated campaign against Prop 70, a failed 2004 ballot initiative proposing tribes share a lower percentage to the state but ultimately be held accountable for reporting slot revenues. Schwarzenegger criticized Indian tribes - the original political entities of the state - as ''powerful special interests.'' It is refreshing and encouraging that he is operating on the other side of the coin now, enjoying collaboration with Indian tribes that may result in gaming benefits for a broader swath of California society.

The San Diego Union Tribune recently noted that the new compacts (already approved by the state legislator before forced by a petition drive onto the Feb. 5 ballot) have widespread support among Californians. This is proof that tribal support of positive public initiatives is never a gamble. It is for many tribes the key to finally reaching full economic success within their communities. Projects and social investments that nearly always have positive returns combine opportunities to educate about tribal history as well as tribes' modern economic and cultural contributions.

The Indian peoples of California stand to gain, too, from a yes vote on these propositions. With public support and respect for their economic prosperity, tribes can become true partners of the governor as job creators and living perpetuators of California's rich cultural heritage. It is also a good lesson learned for Schwarzenegger, the former action-movie star. More often than not, cooperation is better than intimidation.