By the time voters approach their touch-screen booths on Feb. 5, they'll probably know what there is to know about Indian gaming compacts and the state of California. The tribes and their opponents will have spent tens of millions of dollars explaining why the Sycuan, Pechanga, Morongo and Agua Caliente bands should/should not be permitted to add 11,000 slot machines to their casino floors, why it will be an amazing boon/completely devastating to the state budget and how working conditions at the casinos will soon resemble the whistle-while-you-work mine of the Seven Dwarves/Dickensian glove factory. But a Dec. 27 Field poll indicates that right now, only about a quarter of Californians have any idea what Propositions 94 through 97 are about, and since the intervening weeks have involved a lot of binge drinking and football, that figure is probably about the same today.
So, to sum up: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature have agreed with four tribes (plus the San Manuel band, but their agreement isn't on the ballot), to let them double or even triple the number of slot machines in exchange for contributions directly into the state's general fund. Some unions, other Indian tribes, racetrack owners and environmentalists think the new compacts are a terrible idea, so they mustered the signatures to place the ratification of the deals on the ballot. Voting yes on these props is a vote for more slots.
To sum up more densely, the four tribes want more slot machines, but they need voters' permission to do it.Why more slots? Because they're totally bank. Someone might drop two bucks in a slot and walk away with a jackpot on one pull. But over a thousand pulls, or a million, the only winner is the casino. And unlike card games, or booze, or live entertainment, the slots operate every minute of every day of the year, with no vacations or coffee breaks, and healthcare consists of WD-40 and a reboot.
Right now, the tribes are operating under a 1999 compact negotiated with then-Gov. Gray Davis. The nearest of the four for San Diegans is the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians, whose casino lies about 28 minutes eastward of CityBeat's Mission Valley newsroom. They operate 2,000 slots, and although they won't divulge their cash flow, a report commissioned by the propositions' opponents estimates the slots generated $218 million in 2005. That figure doesn't include any of the expenses of running a casino or profits from other sources, but there are only 130 over-18 members of the Sycuan tribe, each of whom gets a cut. A spokesperson for Sycuan, Bernie Rhinerson, said that even if the compact is ratified, the tribe has no plans right now to expand its casino or add slots, but it would like the opportunity to expand with the market.
The governor and the Legislature signed on to the deal because the tribes promise some $9 billion in additional revenue over the 23-year life of the compact. Before, tribal payments went into a special fund for non-gaming Indians, but the cash from the new slots would go into the state's general fund, which means the politicians can spend it however they like. With California facing a $14-billion budget deficit, the governor argues that every little bit helps. So, money for the tribes, money for the state, what's all the fight about? The hospitality workers union, known by the acronym UNITE HERE!, wanted a whole series of work standards inserted into the compacts, and they got almost none of them. No one from UNITE HERE! responded to CityBeat's questions, but Kenneth Burt, political director for another opposition union, the California Federation of Teachers, said it's all about how workers get to unionize.
“If management is happy with [unionization], they can do it,” he said. “But if people are unhappy, and management won't let them [unionize], they can't.”
The tribes say they've already permitted union organizing, and the argument over unionizing is a minor technical matter.
Opponents commissioned a pair of respected former public officials to analyze the revenue assumptions made by the tribes. In their report, Tim Gage and Matthew Newman argue that the $9-billion revenue figure relies on the most liberal interpretation of the revenue formula. Such a high figure can only be achieved if every slot machine is in use all the time. But if some slot machines are roped off during low traffic periods, the revenues might be much lower. They also point out that if more people are going to the casinos, they're not spending money on other entertainment, like horse tracks, movies or sports that generate sales tax. To generate new money for the state, they'd have to attract visitors from out of state or keep locals gambling at home instead of Las Vegas. But surveys show that people who gamble supplement their habits with local casinos, rather than making a visit to the Strip. In some cases, Newman and Gage argue, the casino expansions will end up costing the state more money than it gains from the new revenues, and, at best, the new slots will add only a little to the state's bank account.
A shift that San Diegans will no doubt relate to is that the tribes will no longer admit an outside auditor to come in and calculate the payments. The tribes themselves will determine those payments. The state retains audit authority, but it must rely on documents provided by the tribes.
For all the noise surrounding the compacts, they're not so different from the ones in effect in other states. New Mexico and Connecticut both use a similar formula to determine payments to the state, and New Mexico only gets 10 percent of the revenue from new slots, compared with the 15 percent proposed here. The deputy executive director of the New Mexico Gaming Control Board, Greg Saunders, said their compacts have little to say on the subject of labor or environmental standards. They do maintain stronger oversight, though, since the state can send auditors to the casinos to inspect documents.
Randolph Baker, a San Diego State University professor of tribal gaming management, takes the long view on these compacts. (Baker's chair was endowed in part by a $5 million gift from Sycuan, though, he said, “that doesn't mean they own me.”) He argues that the labor and environmental issues raised by opponents are ancillary to a fundamental question: “Do I, as a citizen of California, favor mega-casinos on Indian reservations? Either answer is valid.”
Of course, when so many billions of dollars are at stake, there might be shenanigans. Schwarzenegger signed the compacts and the Legislature affirmed them last spring. Normally at that stage, Secretary of State Debra Bowen would send the compacts to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for approval. However, since there was opposition gathering signatures, Bowen was supposed to hold the compacts. For whatever reason, she sent them on anyway, and the BIA then had 45 days to make a determination. But the BIA lost the compacts (no kidding) for 80 days. When they reappeared in a BIA official's desk, the deadline for review had past, and the compacts received automatic approval and were published in the Federal Register. The tribes have decided to wait on the results of the vote before they exploit the loophole, but, technically, the compacts might already be in effect.
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