Gov. Pete Wilson's attempt to regulate Indian casino gambling suffered a major setback Monday, despite the efforts of a powerful Democratic legislative ally who has crossed party lines to work with the governor.
Disregarding the personal cajoling of state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), an Assembly committee voted down a bill needed by Wilson to ratify a gaming pact that he negotiated in March with one Native American tribe.
The bill, introduced by Burton and supported vigorously by Wilson, failed in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee. It mustered seven yes votes, two short of the majority needed to pass. There were 10 no votes.
The vote was bipartisan, with members of both parties voting for and against the measure.
Coming at the end of a long legislative day of haggling by a roomful of lobbyists and activists, the defeat was "disappointing," said Burton, but represented only "round one" in the fight to ratify the compact.
There are seven similar bills in the pipeline, Burton said, adding, "There'll be more chances to vote on this bill in more different venues than people ever dreamed of."
Dan Tucker, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn., hailed the committee's vote, saying that it "opens the door for the state to realize that Indians are governments and sovereign nations" entitled to "government to government" consideration.
There is an "opportunity now to hopefully get with the governor and say, 'Mr. Governor, we need a compact . . . that's for all tribes, not just one."
Burton's bill took on added importance last week when a Superior Court judge ruled that Wilson's compact with the Pala Band of Mission Indians of San Diego County is void unless ratified by the Legislature.
Wilson concluded the pact with the Palas, now a non-gaming tribe, in March, declaring that the agreement was binding, although at the same time he said legislative ratification would be welcome.
But Judge Lloyd G. Connelly ruled that Wilson exceeded his authority, saying the governor could negotiate, but could not execute, a gambling agreement. Ratification by the Legislature, he ruled, was mandatory.
On Monday, Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman, pledged that the court fight would continue, as would the ratification effort in the Legislature.
"Sen. Burton deserves a lot of credit," Walsh said. "He's standing up against tribes that are literally trying to buy favor" through campaign donations to Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
"When Mr. Burton is determined," Walsh said, making a rare tribute to a Democrat, "there are few who can stand in his way."
Meanwhile, he said, the administration is appealing Connelly's court ruling. But, noting that Connelly is a former Democratic member of the Assembly, Walsh said that with "this judge playing politics," the administration expects that it will be months before the case moves beyond Connelly's court.
Several tribes have opposed the Wilson-Pala compact, saying the agreement outlaws Nevada-style slot machines used by the tribes. They say the income from the machines constitutes the lifeblood of the new prosperity that has lifted them from poverty.
Wilson has contended that the slot machines are illegal anywhere in California, including reservations.
The compact with the Pala band allows for machine gaming adjusted to form player pools of money rather than allowing gambling against the house.
The Pala pact, the gaming tribes contend, was concluded without their participation but nevertheless sought to force their compliance.