With talk of casino resorts and the latest-generation video gambling machines, American Indian reservations up and down the state are queuing up for the continued conversion of California into a gambling state.
Leaders of California's fledgling Indian gambling industry are heralding a recent judge's order that the state negotiate new gambling treaties with tribal councils. The order says that if the state hosts gambling--which it does through California Lottery games--it must allow Indians to do the same, and to reap their own benefits.
With the exception of some reservations that are boldly offering slot-type gambling machines without state approval, the installation of video gambling machines may still be months--if not years--off. Even then, California is unlikely to experience widespread reservation gambling because of geographic, marketing and business constraints, Indian leaders say.
Still, 31 tribes and bands are in line to negotiate "compacts" with the state for increased levels of gambling, and some are looking confidently toward what they believe the future holds:
* In Yolo County, leaders of the 12-family Rumsey Rancheria, whose Cache Creek Indian Bingo and Casino attracts players from Sacramento and the Bay Area, are talking of a $13-million expansion to double the size of their casino.
* In Sonoma County, the 50-member Makahmo Pomo Indian tribe announced last month that it has teamed up with Japanese investors to construct a $75-million gambling, hotel and sports complex, in anticipation of new gambling opportunities.
* The Agua Caliente Indians in Palm Springs--who had once eschewed gambling ventures--last year allied themselves with Caesars World, one of Nevada's gambling heavyweights, to construct a $20-million hotel-casino complex at an undisclosed location.
* The Morongo Indians plan a $7-million expansion of their casino along Interstate 10 at Cabazon with a new casino-hotel complex.
* On Friday, the Pechanga Indian Reservation near Temecula announced a partnership with Grand Casinos of Minnesota to build a 60,000-square-foot gambling facility, which will feature the video gambling machines as soon as its compact is signed with the state.
* And here in the Dehesa Valley 20 miles east of San Diego, operators of the Sycuan Gaming Center, considered among the foremost Indian casinos in the nation for its mock-Vegas ambience, are ready to expand their banks of video gambling machines with video poker, video keno, video lottery and other games that pit player against machine, dreams against computer chips.
A player here can feed a dollar into a video machine, touch the screen with the swipe of a finger and, if the appropriate symbols appear in a winning tick-tack-toe fashion, receive a credit slip for $500 that can be immediately redeemed in dollars. It happened Wednesday, and in a scene that mimicked life on the Vegas Strip, the player who had just abandoned the machine a dollar prematurely could only shake his head in self-pity.
Some courts have held that the kinds of video gambling machines in use at Sycuan and a dozen or so other California reservations are illegal, but the Indians have nonetheless offered them with various degrees of defiance. In short order, they say, the games will be legal.
A federal judge July 16 ordered the state to negotiate compacts with tribes so they can provide the newest high-stakes gambling machines. They are slot machines by any other name, except they do not use handles and do not clatter enticingly with the hard, cold sound of quarter and dollar payoffs dropping into a reverberating metal tray.
California does not allow the traditional slot machines, nor card or dice games such as blackjack and craps in which the host casino plays the role of bank and competes for the players' money with the odds in its favor.
But in his recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. said that if California is going to offer its residents computerized lottery and interactive video keno games, it is in no position to tell Indians they cannot offer the same kind of gambling opportunities on their reservations. Federal law says that if a state does not criminalize gambling for itself, it cannot ban it on reservations, and instead must negotiate how to regulate it.
And now, California's Indians and their casino managers, who thought tame bingo games were their deliverance to economic self-sufficiency, are heartened by the thought of financial windfalls. They expect to usher in new economic diversity for the reservations, and provide increased health, welfare and other economic and social welfare programs.
"This is the fulfillment of an old Indian prophecy, that one day the buffalo would return, and so would Indian self-sufficiency and an independent way of life," said Michael Lombardi, general manager of the gaming casino that Chumash Indians in Santa Ynez plan to open in September.
While Indians have lauded Burrell's ruling for advancing their cause, bureaucracy still blocks any immediate hopes for a bonanza.
The Indians, who say they wish that the state would stop balking and negotiate on the compacts, have nonetheless agreed not to move on new gambling ventures until the state has exhausted its appeals.
The compacts are complex legal documents addressing not just the kinds of games to be offered, but how many machines can be installed, how they will be regulated, the extent of background checks on key management personnel, environmental standards and other issues, said Sacramento attorney Howard Dickstein, who is representing 20 reservations in their negotiations with the state.
After compacts are struck between the Indians and the state, they must be approved by the National Indian Gaming Commission and the secretary of the Interior and be published in the Federal Registry.
Some tribes will not be in a position to offer new gambling opportunities until they build casinos, expand existing ones or renovate quickly built bingo halls erected during the mid-1980s.
At any rate, gambling industry insiders say that because of their widespread locations, California's reservations will never be able to provide the synergism of gambling and theme entertainment packages created in Las Vegas and other gambling Meccas.
"There will be the hot (gambling) places--like in San Diego County and out by Palm Springs," said George Forman, a Berkeley attorney who represents several reservations. "But most reservations or rancherias are located a fair distance from major population centers, and they have virtually no potential for any large-scale gaming activity."
Gambling expert Bill Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, is not so sure that California is not on the threshold of a gambling revolution.
California is like no other state in the distribution of its Indian reservations, he said, and many eventually may be teased to give gambling a try.
"You throw in 300 or 400 slot-type machines in a hall and it'll be like Las Vegas," he said. "Our casinos are already out in California, making deals."
But Dickstein said his clients are not looking to transform the Southern California landscape with "eight Circus Circuses." And I. Nelson Rose, a professor at the Whittier College School of Law who is a consultant to several Indian tribes, also is advising his clients to move cautiously.
"Gambling is a very dangerous business on which to rest your future," he said. "It's extremely inconsistent, requires constant promotion and it goes in cycles. By the year 2029, it may be outlawed again, and if you're a government--an Indian tribe--you have to consider that long term."
Forman warned that any potential Indian gambling successes will be based on their ability to imaginatively stay ahead of the state's lottery games.
"The tribes will feel that competitive pressure," he said. "Players will wonder if it's worth driving two hours to play games that might essentially be offered at the neighborhood bar or convenience store. The tribes will have to offer even more creative games."
These Indian reservations and rancherias have requests before the state attorney general's office to negotiate compacts for gaming activities.
1) Agua Caliente
5) Cher-Ae Trinidad
6) Chicken Ranch Rancheria
8) Coyote Valley band of Pomo Indians
9) Elem tribe, on the Sulphur Bank Rancheria
10) Ft. Independence
13) Ione band of Miwok
14) Jackson Rancheria
17) Quechan, on the Ft. Yuma Indian Reservation
18) Redding Rancheria
20) Robinson Rancheria
21) Rumsey Rancheria
22) San Manuel
23) San Pasqual
24) Santa Rosa
25) Santa Ynez
28) Table Mountain Rancheria
29) Twentynine Palms
30) Utu Utu on Benton Reservation
Source: State attorney general.
Researched by TRACY THOMAS / Los Angeles Times