Coping With a ‘Vegas’ Fever

What if the ballot description of Proposition 1A in the March 7 primary had read: “Indian tribal gambling: Allows tribes to operate $100-million Nevada-style casinos with as many as 2,000 slot machines each and card games such as blackjack; casinos may bear names like Harrah’s and Donald Trump”? Would Californians have approved the proposition by a landslide 65% of the vote as they did?

The situation described above is what’s developing as tribes pursue their gambling destinies under compacts with the state that were put into effect by the passage of 1A. Tribal leaders argue there will be relatively few big casinos because most tribal lands are in remote rural areas. That may be so, but it’s also clear that the casino business will boom far beyond what most California voters expected when they approved 1A.

Nevada gambling firms, fearing competition, opposed the tribes’ Proposition 5 in 1998 but did not reject Proposition 1A. In some cases, the casino companies have forged partnerships with tribes to build and manage their casinos--for instance, Harrah’s and Anchor Gambling in San Diego County and Station Casinos near Sacramento. There will be a cluster of casinos in the Palm Springs area.

The experts don’t agree on the ultimate impact of the new casinos. The potential number of slot machines runs from about 40,000 to 113,000, compared with 19,000 now. Some legal scholars say the section of the compact that allocates slot machines is indecipherable and will have to be cleared up in court. One expert says tribal gambling revenue will soar from the present $1 billion in business to $2.5 billion. Another says it will reach $4 billion.

The compact that Gov. Gray Davis concluded with 57 tribes allows the limits to be renegotiated in 2003. With tribes playing in the political big leagues by making hefty contributions to legislators and state officials, there’s no assurance that further expansion can be resisted. At least 30 tribes are considering the casino business in addition to the 40 already in it. Now card clubs are demanding parity with the tribes. They want slot machines and Las Vegas-style blackjack too and may challenge Proposition 1A in court if they don’t get them.


Two other developments could expand the scope of Indian gambling in the state. One is the effort by landless tribes to buy urban property for casino construction. That would take federal approval, and the prospects are uncertain. But the fever is high. At least 40 other tribes are seeking federal recognition so they could be eligible to seek gambling compacts with the state. The state’s ability to regulate Indian gambling is limited by tribal sovereignty and the conditions set by the gambling compacts.

The Davis administration and the Legislature have a responsibility to closely monitor the growth of both Indian and non-Indian gambling and the potential for social harm. It appears too late to limit casino gambling to the “modest” level projected by officials, but good sense should keep it from getting out of hand.