Californians give a nod to Indian gambling increase

On Super Tuesday, they approved measures to expand slot machines. But they declined to amend term limits for state lawmakers.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
More to come: California voters on Tuesday approved a vast expansion of slot machines like these at the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs.

Californians marked their ballots not only for their favorite presidential candidates Tuesday, but they also voted to allow Indian tribes to expand gambling in the state – a reversal of public sentiment toward that idea just a few months ago.

Voter approval of four citizen initiatives to expand Indian gambling operations came after months of TV ad wars and will result in the addition of enough new slot machines in California to equal the number at Las Vegas's top 10 casinos.

On another ballot measure calling for an adjustment in term limits for elected politicians, Californians refused to budge from their long-standing position that state legislators, in particular, need to be on a short leash. They rejected it 51 to 49 percent.

The huge spending on ads – $150 million on each side in the gambling propositions and another $7 million on the term-limits measure – showed the power of the purse to influence elections.

"The ballot-proposition landscape is increasingly dominated by interest groups with huge economic interests at stake," says John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California here. "This election, the gambling industry, primarily a handful of tribes, ... virtually monopolized the airwaves in the last couple of weeks."

Change in term limits rejected

On the term-limit measure, however, the nod went to the spending underdog.

"We helped voters figure out that [Proposition] 93 was deceiving and self-serving and bankrolled by the 42 legislators who put this out simply because they wanted more time in office," says Steve Poizner, who put up more than $2 million of his own money to fund TV ads against it. Mr. Poizner, California's insurance commissioner, also crisscrossed the state to convince 40 newspaper editorialists and talk-radio listeners of his view.

Proposition 93 would have reduced the amount of time an individual may serve in the state legislature from 14 years to 12 years – but it also would have allowed current members to start the clock over on their term limits.

Outspent by a reported 250 percent, the "No on 93" forces apparently persuaded California voters that the proposition's real agenda was to extend the possible time in office for current legislators, including Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez.

"The ad featuring Núñez buying expensive wine and taking overseas trips and [Senate President pro Tem] Don Perata's home being invaded by FBI agents was the best ad of the year," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, which encourages citizen participation in and interaction with government. "Voters don't like politicians, and their votes reflected that."

In other states that adopted term limits in the 1980s and '90s, following California's lead, attempts to relax the rules have mostly failed, says Dr. Matsusaka at USC.

"Many leaders of both parties and in the media supported Prop. 93, and opinion polls tell us that voters are quite unhappy with the way the legislature works," he says.

Its failure "tells me that voters remain deeply suspicious of professional politicians and still want to keep them on tight rein."

The switch on gambling

The thumbs up for the gambling measures – Propositions 94, 95, 96, and 97 – mark a reversal of public attitude toward expanded gambling.

"Before this campaign, Californians opposed expansion of Indian gaming by a margin of 11 percent … 50 percent 'no' and 39 'yes,' " says Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Field Poll. "After the 'yes' side spent multimillions talking about the virtues of handing more money to the state and giving money back to native American communities, the numbers switched by voting day to 44 percent 'yes' and '38' percent 'no.' "

One side touted the promise that new Indian-gambling compacts would add $9 billion to state coffers over 20 years and benefit poorer reservations that currently have no gambling operations.

The other side countered that only the state's four richest tribes would benefit and that estimates of how much money would come to the state were exaggerated.

"Voters see it as a painless way to reduce the deficit without raising taxes, although the actual benefit will be quite small in the long run," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

"It was Vegas and race tracks versus Indian casinos," he says, "and the casinos won."

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