UNCASVILLE, Conn. - This election's bumper crop of gaming referenda might
seem at first blush like horsemen versus Indians. But like most casino
politics, the rivalries are much more tangled, and gaming tribes might
actually come out ahead in some surprising cases.
The referenda measures go well beyond the highly publicized and extremely
expensive campaigns over Propositions 68 and 70 in California. Votes in
five other states will affect tribal interests, not always in the most
A common theme of the measures is to expand casino gaming for non-tribal
interests, such as racetrack owners, riverboats and card rooms. But they
could also expand business opportunities for tribes, some of which are
poised to exploit them.
The California measures started out as rivals sponsored by the horsemen and
poker players (Prop. 68) or by major gaming tribes (Prop. 70). But they are
both under assault by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wants to preserve his
hand in negotiating tribal gaming compacts. Latest polls suggest that the
governor might be the big winner, shooting down both.
Some local referenda are testing public support for casinos, and one of
these, in Kenosha, Wis., is actually pitting tribe against tribe. The
Forest County Potawatomi, who operate a $260-million-a-year casino in
Milwaukee, are openly opposing a casino sought by the Menominee, the
state's largest and least wealthy tribe.
In addition to California, major gaming measures will be on the Nov. 2
state ballots in Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Washington
state. They would all open the door for casino-style gaming beyond tribal
Racino interests in Florida are pushing Amendment 4, which would authorize
Miami-Dade and Broward County voters to approve slot machines at dog and
horse race tracks and jai alai frontons. The state has voted down previous
pro-gambling amendments, but its backers are hoping the more conservative
northern counties will let it go for South Florida, which they say
religious voters already write off as "Sodom and Gomorrah."
One sharp-eyed columnist noted that the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes are
showing studied indifference to Amendment 4, hoping no one will notice that
it would bring them a bonanza. State legalization of slot machines would
open the flood gates for Class III tribal casinos, currently stalled by the
state's refusal to negotiate a compact.
Likewise, Oklahoma's Question 712 would enact a Model Tribal Gaming
Compact, expanding the type of slot machines available at tribal casinos.
(The state now allows only Class II machines, based however indirectly on
bingo cards) The kicker is that if at least four tribes enter into the
compact, the same slots would be available for state-licensed racetracks.
But in a double reverse the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes are strongly behind
the measure, since they both recently bought their own racetracks.
The Nebraska ballot offers no less than five gaming measures, including
three initiatives, which originate with voter petitions, and two proposed
Initiative 417 would amend the state constitution to allow the people to
enact laws by initiative to provide "for the authorization, operation,
regulation and taxation of all forms of games of chance."
Amendment 3 would do the job directly, authorizing casinos in no more than
two counties, subject to approval by voters of the county.
Initiative 419 would allow communities to authorize gambling, and would set
up a lucrative tax schedule. (The tax would be 36 percent of the first $15
million of gross gaming revenue and 20 percent thereafter; depending on
definition of "gross," this could be the biggest tax bite in the country)
Initiative 420 would authorize more limited numbers of casinos and
establish a Nebraska Gaming Commission.
The measures have drawn opposition from Omaha investor Warren Buffett, one
of the country's richest and most respected businessmen, who has close ties
to the Winnebago Tribe. The Winnebagos have based an ambitious
diversification program on their WinnaVegas Casino. Hedging their bets,
they plan to seek a contract for one of the casinos that would be
authorized by Amendment 3.
The Ponca Tribe would build its first casino on trust land. The Santee
Sioux, recovering from their epic battle to keep open its Ohiya Casino,
would expand its operations to Class III games and might seek a casino in
Across the Mississippi in Iowa, voters have been holding county referenda
on gaming. Three counties have approved measures so far this year, and
three more will vote on Nov. 2. Three tribes so far have gaming compacts
and casinos in the state, the Winnebago with WinnaVegas in Sloan, the Omaha
with CasinOmaha in Onawa and the Sac & Fox, with Meskwaki Bingo & Casino in
The Michigan measure, Proposal 04-1, would actually provide some protection
for tribal gaming and the existing three casinos in Detroit. It would
require state and local voter approval for any new form of gaming.
The Washington state Initiative 892 would allow non-tribal gaming in
licensed "charities, restaurants, taverns, bowling alleys, horse racing
facilities and card rooms," pitching the deal as a way to reduce the state
The Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut is keeping a close eye on both the
Washington state and Kenosha, Wis. votes as a hurdle for its ambitious
expansion plans. The owners of the Mohegan Sun, one of the world's most
profitable casinos, have signed development and management contracts with
both the Menominee of Wisconsin and the Cowlitz Tribe of Washington state.