California poised to give big boost to gambling

State voters are expected to pass a measure March 7 expanding tribal casinos.

Sequestered by rocky hills from the sprawl of San Diego, this orchard-quilted expanse of glades and gorges could double for the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant.

From a dusty backyard, where children play beneath line-drying clothes, Carla Nejo can just see the riverside park where a gambling casino is due to rise beneath oaks, sycamores, and pines.

"Gaming will help create jobs, health facilities, better education, libraries, water and fire facilities - everything," says Carla, a teenage Pala Indian who grew up on this 12,000-acre reservation.

One mile up the road, 50-year resident Kay Lyall has a different view. "We don't think casinos will add anything to this community," she says, gardening in front of her ranch-style house. "A casino only brings the wrong kind of people in here for the wrong reasons."

Their views represent two sides of a political fight focusing on a March 7 vote that many say will change the face of California and give momentum to the expansion of gambling in dozens of states. If voters approve Proposition 1A - a constitutional amendment to allow tribes exclusive rights to operate Nevada-style slot machines and card games - dozens of casinos are expected to sprout in rural areas from Oregon to Mexico.

Approval of the measure will also ease the way for tribes across the United States to create compacts with their states to allow some forms of gambling as a means of self-reliance.

"Because the state is so big and holds so many tribes [112], once California has resolved this issue, the hurdles for tribes in other states will be resolved as well," says John Dossett of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Washington.

The California measure is intended to clear up legal questions that led to a state Supreme Court rejection of Proposition 5, a 1998 initiative to legalize and expand tribes' existing casinos here. The measure passed by an overwhelming 2-to-1 margin before being declared unconstitutional.

Because of overwhelming public support, Indian tribes here negotiated and signed new compacts with the state last summer. The current proposition has the support of Gov. Gray Davis and two-thirds of both houses of the state legislature.

"The state leadership of both parties now concur about what forms of tribal gaming make sense for California," says Waltona Manyon, spokeswoman for Proposition 1A.

Passage would allow tribes the right to offer Nevada-style slot machines (allowing coins and jackpots instead of redeemable receipts), video poker, blackjack, poker, and other card games at no more than two casinos per reservation. Roulette and craps would remain illegal.

California would become the third-largest gambling state - behind Nevada and New Jersey - tripling from $1.5 billion annually to about $4.7 billion, according to a study by the University of Nevada, commissioned by the California attorney general.

If the measure fails, about 38 tribes would face a shutdown of the casinos on their land. If it succeeds, about 60 tribes are expected to move toward some form of gambling. Many have large contracts with Las Vegas firms, such as Anchor Gaming, which would build the 926-member Pala tribe's first casino.

"This casino will provide 1,200 jobs and enhance every facet of our reservation," says Pala Tribal Chairman Robert Smith.

Despite outcries such as that of Ms. Lyall, the war for public approval appears to be won. Nevada casinos, which spent $25 million trying to defeat Proposition 5, are mounting no serious opposition to 1A, despite a recent study that showed approval will hurt Las Vegas significantly. Thirty-five percent of Nevada's annual $7.7 billion gambling income comes from Californians.

One key ingredient in the campaign has been letting the public know how much assistance will be forthcoming, even for tribes who don't offer gambling.

Through the agreements they have negotiated with the state, nongambling tribes are expected to receive more than $150 million annually (about 3.25 percent of gambling receipts).

Tribes have also been able to drive home two other points: Casinos already provide 50,000 jobs for tribe members and $120 million annually in state and local taxes. On reservations with casinos, unemployment has dropped nearly 50 percent, while welfare has been cut by 68 percent.

"The money spent on California's Proposition 5 and Proposition 1A has made it possible for tribes everywhere to finally pierce through and make the American public realize that what they are doing with casinos is about self-determination, not profitmaking," says NCAI's Mr. Dossett.

The tribes have also provided stronger wording about public concerns such as environmental impacts and other regulations. A change in the governor's office has helped gambling's prospects as well. Now the argument is over how many slot machines would become legal. The Davis administration says 44,798 would become legal, but a nonpartisan legislative analyst says 113,000 would be authorized.

"You put 100,000 machines in California, you'll be drumming gambling into the population," says Prof. Bill Thompson, a gambling expert at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

But Indians counter that the alternative is worse. "We've heard politicians and officials say gambling is bad, but it's the only thing that's worked," argues Jake Coin, executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington. "I've yet to hear anyone ... say there is a better alternative."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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