Gambling on the Gold-Plated Lure of Casinos

Washington State tribes pitch a controversial voter dividend

INDIANS hoping to win the right to bring slot machines into their casinos have hit upon a novel - and controversial - idea: Give everyone who turns out to vote a share of the profits.

Washington State's Initiative 651 would send a dividend check to every active voter in the state, distributing a 10 percent share in slot-machine revenues, after prizes.

The Puyallup, Shoalwater Bay, and Spokane tribes, which are backing the initiative, liken their plan to Alaska's annual dividend of oil-industry revenues paid out to all state residents.

But critics see it as a thinly veiled attempt to buy votes, something banned in federal and state laws.

They are also concerned that if the disputed measure succeeds - both at the ballot box and in court - tribes in other states might follow suit.

"If they win, somebody will try to repeat it," says William Thompson, a gambling expert at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Although federal law opened the door to gaming on tribal lands in 1988, in practice tribes can go only so far as state law allows. Typically details are spelled out in treaty-like compacts between state officials and individual tribes.

Here in Washington, when compact talks regarding slot machines reached an impasse, tribes pushed for a ballot initiative.

A number of states have similar disputes stirring. Some, including California, Florida, Texas, and Idaho, have refused to approve slot machines in Indian casinos. In others, such as Montana, tribes want allowances for more slot machines. And in Oregon and Arizona, slots are legal but tribes want freedom to offer table games such as blackjack.

Nancy Todd, a Pensacola, Fla., political consultant familiar with gaming issues, believes the payout-to-voters strategy also could be applied to nongambling cases, such as "anywhere where a vote is required to bring in a new industry."

But Mr. Thompson sees I-651 as a long shot. "I don't think the initiative will hold up in court, if it passes," he says.

And he sees a bigger issue at stake for tribes: public relations. Their reputation for "basic integrity" could be put on the line. In this regard, the promise of money payouts ironically may hurt the initiative's prospects.

Several tribes are critical of the measure. "We would rather see the money go toward education, law enforcement, and other local programs," says Anita Rutherford, marketing manager for the Tulalip Casino, north of Seattle. Nationwide, many tribal gambling compacts provide for a portion of the proceeds to go to the state.

SO far, officials in the state capital of Olympia have not allowed slot machines on reservations because they are not allowed anywhere else in the state.

But native Americans counter that the state lottery and some simple games in which players lift cardboard tabs to win prizes are essentially the same as slot machines. Thus, they reason, slots should be legal on tribal lands.

"Olympia has defied federal law from the beginning," argues Scott Crowell, an attorney for two tribes backing I-651. "All tribes are asking is same authority" on their land that the state has over its jurisdiction, he says.

The payout is not an effort to buy votes, but is merely the most efficient way to share revenues Alaska-style, Crowell contends. From each year's election, the state gets an updated address list of state voters.

The stakes are high for tribes, many of which have large numbers of unemployed members.

Currently, Indian casinos near Seattle or Tacoma are doing well. The Bingo Palace run by the Puyallup tribe near Tacoma, for example, was filled with 600 people on a recent evening.

But casinos in more rural parts of the state face bleaker prospects. Slot machines could help turn remote casinos into resort destinations, Crowell says.

There is little question as to the appeal of slots. They account for close to two-thirds of the gaming revenues in Nevada, and the figure is higher in other states.

Slot machines therefore promise to expand an already thriving gambling market estimated at around $1.5 billion in this state of 5 million residents. Crowell says a voter might see an annual check as high as $100. Others disagree, forecasting a much lower amount.

If passed, the initiative would likely draw some money away from charitable bingo and the state lottery, predicts Roger Snowden, a Seattle-area resident who runs the Bingo Bugle, a franchised national publication.

But, he says, the machines will also lure in new money. "Gambling in the United States ... is on a tremendous escalating roll."

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