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Gambling Control Commission gets Senate committee support

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Gov. Gray Davis' Gambling Control Commission passed a major hurdle this month when the California Senate Rules Committee signaled its intention to confirm all four commission members.

The Senate Rules Committee voted 3-0 to recommend confirmation of Chairman John Hensley and backed the other commission members, J.K. Sasaki, Michael Palmer and Arlo Smith by a 5-0 margin. The committee is composed of three Democrats and two Republicans, both of whom abstained during the Hensley vote.

Though the majority of tribes supported the commission members, the primary opposition to Hensley's confirmation as chairman came from the Pechanga and San Manuel tribes. In a statement to the committee, Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro, a prominent tribal leader, accused Hensley of being divisive among the California tribes.

"Mr. Hensley has created an atmosphere of mistrust by telling tribes what they want to hear," Macarro said in a report published in the San Diego Union Tribune.

One of the main points of contention is the fact non-gaming tribes have not received payments promised them when Proposition 1A was passed last year, and the tribes are in disagreement on who is to blame.

Some tribes, such as Pechanga and San Manuel, contend that it is the fault of Gov. Davis and the commission. They accuse both parties of holding the money hostage as a bargaining tool to strong-arm tribes into getting funding for the commission.

At the meeting Macarro accused Hensley of a unilateral interpretation of the tribal gaming compacts. He specifically accused Hensley of holding up payments to the non-gaming tribes.

So far the commission has agreed to distribute only a portion of the funds and will send out $25 million in payments by the end of the month.

Other tribes, such as San Pasqual, blamed other gaming tribes for not releasing required information to the Gambling Control Commission which they say is a prerequisite to allowing the California Legislature to release the funds.

The commission itself contends some of the gaming tribes are the problem. Commission sources say they are required by law to have information from the tribes before they can make a report to the Legislature who distributes the funds.

The opposition tribes, however, feel this is a misinterpretation of the compact signed with Gov. Davis.

Another contentious issue is the jurisdictional authority of the commission. The California Attorney General's Office already has a Division of Gambling Control and some tribes wondered about a duplication of authority in regard to scope of authority for the two gaming monitors.

"The compacts are government-to-government contracts and we're just very interested that the terms are kept in good faith regarding the special distribution of funds and that there is no duplication of effort," said Butch Murphy, communications director for the Pechanga tribe.

Pechanga and San Manuel have allies. Sen. Ross Johnson, R-Irvine, decided to oppose Hensley. A Republican effort at the beginning of this summer sought to hold up funding for the commission until these and other issues were resolved.

Despite some prominent opposition, 12 other tribes, including such prominent gaming tribes as Agua Caliente, Barona, Rincon, and San Pasqual, decided to support Hensley with letters.

Allen Lawson, chairman of the San Pasqual tribe, supports both Hensley and the commission. He said Hensley has dealt fairly with him and his tribe "from day one," and insists the commission chairman has not been divisive.

Commission opponents said they feel the information requested by the commission is repetitive in that it was turned over to the attorney general's office during a draw for machine licenses last year. Lawson sees no problem with releasing the required information to the commission. He said it took only a few minutes to gather and send the information and that it was not excessive or intrusive.

Lawson said he feels the entire issue is part of the greater debate on tribal sovereignty and what exactly that entails. He added that with gaming, tribes are no longer isolationist entities and must adhere to certain rules and restrictions.

Lawson said that while he understands the reason some tribes would be zealous in their protection of tribal sovereignty, he feels complete sovereignty is not practical since tribal casino operations serve and affect neighboring communities.

"If you open up a business and have thousands of people coming on your land you have to deal with issues such as fire, public safety and local infrastructure. There's just a limited amount of sovereignty that must be waived," he said.

Additionally, Lawson said complying with the commission is a small price to pay for being allowed to run a multi-million dollar business.

All commission members must be confirmed by the California Senate by Sept. 18 though the legislative session ends four days earlier.