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Indian Gambling, New Chapter

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California voters approved by a nearly two-to-one margin last November a statewide initiative, Proposition 5, permitting casino-style gambling on Indian lands. But it has now been rendered moot by another voter initiative, this one 15 years old.

That was the gavel blow delivered Monday by a 6-to-1 majority of the California Supreme Court. The court’s ruling was surprisingly simple: Voters in 1984 approved by 57.9% to 42.1% an amendment to the state constitution that created the California Lottery. The same amendment banned Nevada and New Jersey casino-style gambling in California. End of story.

But not really, of course. Just as it was predicted that Proposition 5 would not lay the matter of Indian lands gambling to rest, the latest court decision is just another stop on a deep-pockets legal excursion fought by the tribes and Nevada casino gambling interests.

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This is what happens when the deliberative process of lawmaking is marred by ill-worded and often misleading ballot campaigns.

So, what should happen now to finally resolve this dispute?

The California tribes are trying to recover from a huge mistake. In retrospect, they now know that they should have sought a constitutional amendment that could have held up in court. The tribes are already at work gathering signatures to put just such an amendment on the ballot in March.

Gov. Gray Davis has pledged to negotiate with the Indians, but he and the Legislature are limited in what they can do. They cannot, for example, unilaterally decide that the tribes can have casino-style gambling machines, which offer a much greater profit margin than currently legal lottery-style machines. That decision would have to come from a voter-approved constitutional amendment.

What could happen as early as today, however, is a state Senate vote putting such an amendment before voters, and eliminating the need for further signature gathering for petitions. That amendment might be based on the Proposition 5 language, but it would be better if that were not the case. If this matter is to go to the ballot box again, much more tightly focused language could set limits and better means of oversight. The Proposition 5 language was the best among unsuitable alternatives last year. A constitutional amendment demands better.

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