Garcia: All bets are off

When California spun the big wheel on Indian gaming several years ago, it may have seemed like a relatively safe bet. At the time, there appeared little chance the Golden State would ever get so tied to gambling money that it would start to resemble Nevada.

The odds have now changed, as reflected by the intensive and expensive lobbying campaign by several wealthy tribes to greatly expand their slot machine allotment at their thriving casinos. And now the only thing standing between new compact agreements between the state and a number of well-heeled tribes is the will of Assembly lawmakers to nix the deals and start over.

That’s exactly what should happen but probably won’t, if history is an accurate guide. American Indian tribes have become a political force unto themselves in California largely through their vast campaign chests — the more money they make from their casinos, the more they pour into their lobbying efforts for bigger and swankier casinos with ever more slot machines.

The stakes are huge, which is why the Morongo Band of Mission Indians is spending $20 million on advertising to pressure Assembly members to do what their counterparts in the state Senate already have — sign off on compacts with five Southern California tribes to triple their number of slot machines from 10,000 to 32,500. Some Assembly Democrats have accused the tribes of “bullying tactics’’ to win their approval, but the battle lines have been drawn because the word out of Sacramento is that if the compacts aren’t approved, the tribes will oppose a ballot measure next year to relax term limits.

Yet what’s clear in the latest round of discussions is that the state has gone way beyond the scope voters had in mind when they approved gambling casinos on rural Indian reservations in 1998 and 2000 — an idea to help tribes lift their lot from abject poverty to more equitable and humane standing. Few could have envisioned at the time that Indian gaming would emerge as a $7 billion annual industry and would provide the juice for one of California’s most powerful special interest groups.

As evidence, just go back three years when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was talking tough about Indian gambling. Then during his re-election campaign, Schwarzenegger negotiated a series of 30-year agreements with the tribes that he said were good for California. To his credit, the governor is getting the tribes to hand over up to 25 percent of the profits from the slot machines, but the agreements still don’t include an independent audit of the income from the slots and they lack basic labor safeguards such as workers’ compensation protection.

That’s why the compacts are a shaky bet for California, because the lack of strict regulation of the casinos, not to mention the tribes’ sovereign status, has made Indian gambling in California something of a shell game. Lost in the latest round of negotiations is the fact that tribes are still trying to buy land far from their ancestral homes and transform it into gaming halls — a form of reservation shopping. It’s all part of a gambling explosion that has rightly prompted concerns in communities throughout the stateas the casinos inch ever closer to big cities in California.

The television ad funded by the tribes that is getting lots of play around the state says the Indian tribes have been “good, responsible neighbors’’ by bringing in jobs — but the experience of most communities has been quite different, with traffic congestion, environmental impacts and increased crime rates heading the complaint list. Money may ease some of the pain, but it’s clear that the compacts still don’t address some key issues — which is why Democrats in the Assembly say that it’s going to be a tough fight to get them to sign off on the deal.

Getting more money from the casino deals is not reason enough to continue to approve more — even in a state that sees the slots as a way to help it with its spending problems. But that hasn’t stopped backers of the compacts from playing hardball — Schwarzenegger has been warning lawmakers that every day that goes by without the agreements in place, California loses another $1.3 million.

Yet in reality, it’s more like Monopoly money, with the tribes controlling the bank. So it’s good to see that some officials in Sacramento are actually taking a long look at the compacts — and their ramifications — rather than just genuflecting at the altar of special interests.

California’s growing dependence on gambling money can’t be considered a good thing, unless you happen to be a member of one of the wealthier tribes — or one of the many political consultants who have also hit the jackpot.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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