Voters approve major expansion of tribal gambling in California
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Four California tribes won the right Tuesday to add thousands of slot machines, as voters approved a major expansion of Indian gambling that prompted one of the state’s costliest election battles.The votes affirm deals Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers struck last year with four wealthy Southern California tribes; in exchange for dramatic expansions of their existing casinos, the tribes will share hundreds of millions of dollars in casino winnings annually with the cash-strapped state.With 44 percent of precincts reporting, Propositions 94-97 each had about 2.1 million votes, or 55.5 percent of the vote, compared to about 1.7 million, or 44.5 percent against.California’s casino industry is already second only to Nevada’s, and the new gambling compacts give the four tribes the right to add 17,000 slot machines enough to fill eight Las Vegas-sized casinos. That represents a 30 percent increase in the number of slots in the state.”Voters said yes to hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue for the state each year, and once again said yes to standing with California’s Indian tribes” said Roger Salazar, spokesman for the Coalition to Protect California’s Budget andamp; Economy, the committee run by the four tribes seeking “yes” votes on the referendums.Schwarzenegger bet weeks ago that voters would approve the deals. The budget he proposed last month assumed almost a half-billion dollars in new revenue from the casino-operating tribes. California faces a projected $14.5 billion shortfall over the next year-and-a-half.The deals would not have required voter approval, but a coalition of two other gambling-rich tribes, a horse track owner and a casino-workers’ union gathered nearly a million signatures to force referendums on the deals onto the ballot. They raised over $30 million to defeat the agreements, but the four tribes that stand to gain raised almost four times as much, about $104 million, for a blitz of television ads to urge their approval.Those opposed argued the deals unfairly consolidate casino wealth in the hands of a few tribes in the state while doing little to help dozens of others that remain in poverty across California. They also worry the deals would cut into race track profits, increase competition and curb workers’ rights.The deals gained in polls in recent weeks as Schwarzenegger began campaigning heavily for them. His appearances have coincided with millions in contributions from the tribes to the Republican party in recent weeks.The most recent polls showed the measures were leading in statewide surveys. But the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill, warned that even if the measures passed, as Schwarzenegger has assumed, his budget bets the tribes will expand casinos faster than is likely. She’s calculated the governor’s Indian gambling revenue estimates are inflated by about $200 million over the next year-and-a-half.Schwarzenegger’s budget assumes the four tribes would add almost 7,000 slot machines within six months and that all 17,000 slots allowed under the compacts will be up and running within about a year. The tribes, however, have cautioned they may have to wait until the economy improves to complete the expansions.Currently, about 60 tribes operate about 60,000 slot machines in Indian casinos across California. Statewide, the industry takes in about $7 billion annually.The four tribes that won the rights to the slots are the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians near Temecula, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Cabazon, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation near San Diego.The opposition group consisted of the United Auburn Indian Community east of Sacramento and the Pala Band of Mission Indians in Riverside County, the Unite HERE International Union representing hotel and casino workers, and Terry Fancher, managing partner of the parent company of the Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park race tracks.The millions spent on the campaigns for and against the Indian gambling deals accounted for the bulk of the $160 million in donations for all seven statewide initiatives on Tuesday’s ballot.