The Politics of Chance

Gambling operations on Indian reservations often bring a clash of goals and values. Long-impoverished tribes see economic salvation in slot machines. States see a loss of revenue to tax-free reservation casinos. Antigambling groups see eroding moral standards and ruin for some gamblers' families.

These differing perspectives collide on the California ballot this year. Proposition 5 would, in effect, open the door to tribal gaming operations throughout the state. That door has been kept partly closed by Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who opposes expansion into types of wagering that have been illegal in California - such as video slot machines.

Earlier this year, however, Mr. Wilson reached agreement with a few tribes to allow one type of video slots - with a limit on the number of machines. This was in line with a 1988 federal law requiring tribes to seek a state's OK before moving into restricted kinds of gambling.

Some 40 tribes, however, had already installed video slots despite the state's objection. That's one reason their gambling revenues have risen to $1.5 billion yearly. Now the state, and the feds, want to remove the illegal slots. Hence Prop 5, which would end state interference with Indian gaming.

Tribes backing the proposition say their new self-sufficiency depends on its passage. Many voters are sympathetic, according to polls. Opponents decry an unregulated, untaxed expansion of gambling in California.

The stakes are attested by the estimated $60 million pouring into the battle. But, granting the historic wrongs suffered by tribes and their right to economic betterment, the real stakes go beyond dollars.

Gambling is a false economic savior. Tribes or communities staking their futures on the lure of betting are likely to find that ever-proliferating competition and changing economic winds can dry up revenue streams.

Meanwhile, the moral fiber of a nation that finds wealth in chance rather than principled, productive work is weakened - whether it's a tiny Indian nation or the larger American nation.

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