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Major expansion of California Indian gaming compacts moves forward

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By Don Thompson -- Associated Press

SACRAMENTO (AP) - A series of compacts that would grant a massive expansion of Indian gambling in California gained momentum recently when the state Senate approved modifications designed to make the deals more palatable to reluctant Assembly members.

The Senate approved nonbinding side agreements to four of the five gambling compacts it previously approved in April. Those compacts had been negotiated between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and wealthy tribes but had stalled in the Assembly.

The issue has been divisive in Sacramento for months. Schwarzenegger and five tribes agreed last year to the gambling expansion: The tribes would get to add thousands of slot machines, and in return state government would receive hundreds of millions of dollars per year in gambling revenue.

Assembly Democrats blocked the deals because labor groups, among their most important allies, objected. Unions seek the right to organize casino workers and want provisions that would force tribes to adhere to state and federal labor laws.

Schwarzenegger revived the compacts this year, pushing lawmakers to approve them as a way to help balance the state's budget.

Negotiations had been stalled until Schwarzenegger's office negotiated the nonbinding memorandums of understanding with four of the five tribes late in June. Those agreements contain several promises from the tribes, including assurances they will provide certain protections for employees and help gambling addicts.

The agreements were contained in a single bill the Senate approved June 28, 22 - 6.

In a statement, Schwarzenegger said the side agreements ''will enhance our already strong compacts and give the Legislature the assurances they need to approve the compacts, which will bring in much needed revenue for vital services and programs.''

The governor's office has estimated the gambling expansion would pump more than $500 million a year into state coffers over the compacts' 25-year terms. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said the figure would be closer to $200 million next year.

Under the side agreements, the tribes agreed to give the state financial audits to prove they are contributing the accurate share of gambling revenues. They also agreed to show proof that they are providing workers' compensation, fighting gambling addiction and complying with court orders to withhold employees' wages for child and family support.

Labor unions continue to oppose the compacts, despite the side agreements.

''They're crumbs on the table. They really don't address in any significant way the important issues for the workers at the casinos,'' said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

The handful of senators who voted against the bill objected to the broadening of casino gambling in California and the voluntary nature of the side agreements with the tribes.

''It doesn't have any legal enforceability,'' said Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles. ''We [in the Senate] looked people in the eye and told them why and how we voted. ... If we don't like the compacts, vote them down.''

The side agreements modify the larger gambling-expansion compacts Schwarzenegger previously negotiated with four Southern California tribes: the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego; the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Temecula; the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs; and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Cabazon.

A fifth tribe, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in San Bernardino, has refused to sign the side agreement.

If the Legislature eventually approves all five compacts, it would give those tribes the right to operate an additional 22,500 slot machines. That would be the largest expansion of gambling in California since voters gave tribes the authority to operate Vegas-style casinos in 2000.

Tribal casinos across the state already operate 58,120 slot machines and took in $7.7 billion in revenue in 2006, according to a private, nationwide analysis of tribal gambling revenue released this week. By comparison, Nevada's casinos took in revenue of $12.6 billion in 2006.

Sen. Jack Scott, D-Altadena, said he opposes the expansion and voted against the side agreements negotiated this week.

''I didn't move to California with the idea in mind that it would become Nevada. And it is slowly becoming Nevada,'' Scott said. ''More and more, we're becoming like all kinds of addicts: We're becoming dependent on something that I don't think is productive as far as the economy of the state is concerned.''

Schwarzenegger's side agreements also require the tribes to maintain certain minimum standards for operation of their Nevada-style games. That provision was necessary in part because the federal National Indian Gaming Commission, which had enforced those standards in the past, was stripped of its authority to do so by a federal court decision in the fall of 2006.

A draft bill debated June 28 by the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee in Washington would restore the federal commission's oversight role for Nevada-style - or ''Class III'' - gambling.

Associated Press Writer Erica Werner in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.