Public policy analysts on Friday condemned a proposal that Gov. Gray Davis made behind closed doors to give Indian tribes the right to choose two members of the commission that regulates tribal gambling in California.
“It’s beyond the perception of impropriety,” said Bill Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and author of “Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia.” “It’s ‘You vote for me, you give me money and support; I give you this.’ It’s wrong. People can do this with smiles and winks and all of this, but to put it in actual words -- incredible! It’s an incredible sellout.”
Tribal representatives defended the Davis proposal as an effort to give Indians a voice in the state’s regulation of Indian casinos. Some tribes have clashed with the five-member Gambling Control Commission over the method of calculating casino revenues and other issues.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said Rob Rosette, a Native American attorney who represents 12 California tribes. “Nobody understands the issues better than the tribes themselves. I understand there’s going to be skepticism.”
He said he was hopeful that Davis “is doing this for all the right reasons. I believe he is.”
Amber Pasricha, the governor’s spokeswoman on Indian affairs, said Friday that Davis’ offer to select two commissioners from a list submitted by the tribes was unrelated to the recall election he faces.
“The governor recognizes that the tribes are sovereign nations and that the state plays a regulatory role through the rules set up in the compact with tribes,” she said. “He has asked the tribes to submit these nominations to make sure these vacant positions on the board are filled by people that are best suited for the job.”
Davis made his offer in a Thursday appearance before 150 tribal leaders and members in Sacramento. The Democratic governor and two challengers made separate appearances at the meeting of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn. to seek support -- and campaign contributions -- from tribes in the Oct. 7 special election.
Indian tribes have spent more than $120 million on state political campaigns since 1998, more than any other single entity or industry in the state.
In their pitches to the tribal leaders, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock depicted themselves as staunch friends of the tribes. Both advocated lifting a cap on the number of slot machines the tribes can operate, according to people present at the meeting. And both expressed unequivocal support for tribal sovereignty, a concept that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and allows tribes to exist as independent nations.
Bustamante said in a telephone interview Friday that he had been asked about the commission during his appearance before tribal leaders. He said some of the questioners had expressed displeasure with some commission members and had asked how he would address that. Bustamante said he had told the gathering that he would welcome their comments but that he hadn’t promised to accept tribal nominees.
“I think it’s appropriate for any industry to make recommendations but not to be in a position to determine” a governor’s appointments, he said. “I’m not guaranteeing anybody anything.”
Deron Marquez, chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and a frequent Davis critic, characterized the governor’s offer as a blatant attempt to keep tribes from supporting the recall effort -- a charge that Davis aides reject.
“This is just his attempt to placate and pacify tribes,” Marquez said. “He’s doing this to save his job, or at least make an attempt to keep tribes out of the recall and keep them from backing other candidates.”
Davis’ overtures to the tribes is part of a broader effort to win back the support of key groups as he fights to remain in office.
His strained relations with tribes mirror the decline in his standing with Californians: Tribes donated $750,000 to Davis’ 1998 gubernatorial campaign. He has accepted more than $1.3 million in campaign donations from casino-owning tribes since taking office in 1999, but the flow of their money has slowed considerably as his relations with the tribes have soured.
As he has tried to improve his standing in the polls, Davis has shed his trademark caution in a number of recent instances and embraced an array of measures, causes and politically powerful interests.
In most cases, his newfound boldness has been a calculated risk -- an attempt to move away from his carefully crafted image as a political centrist, and solidify softening support among Latinos and loyal Democratic Party voters whom the Davis campaign thinks it needs to defeat the recall, analysts said.
In reaching out to the state’s Native American tribes with a pledge to award seats on a regulatory commission, Davis may have taken on political risk, providing his critics with ammunition to reinforce a Davis criticism he would rather avoid: that money and influence can buy positions of power in his administration.
“It’s definitely cause for concern when special-interest organizations may be gaining access based on campaign contributions they are making,” said Paul Ryan, political reform project director at the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “It creates at least the perception of corruption and contributes to the public’s low confidence in government.”
Davis’ critics have long attempted to tie his prodigious fund-raising to his government, noting that many top Davis donors and their representatives have been named to key state boards and commissions. Davis has denied any links between his policy positions and campaign contributions.
California’s Indian tribes are at the center of the larger debate over the role of campaign contributions in shaping public policy.
Davis stunned and angered many Indian tribes in January by proposing $1.5 billion a year in new taxes on tribal casinos. On Thursday, with the special recall election barely five weeks away, Davis offered an apology of sorts for that idea when he met with many of these same tribes, according to several people in the audience.
Federal law shields the tribes from state and federal taxes. But under 1999 gambling agreements held by 61 tribes, more than 40 tribes pay into a fund that shares a portion of casino revenue with smaller gaming tribes and tribes that don’t have casinos, and 28 tribes pay into a fund that is supposed to address the environmental and social effects of Indian casinos.
California’s Gambling Control Commission, composed of five members, oversees the operations of more than 50 tribal casinos and 119 card clubs. It sets industry policies, establishes regulations, issues licenses and referees disputes over license denials by the Division of Gambling Control, the state body’s law enforcement arm.
Some gambling experts said the Davis proposal to give tribes a say in selecting industry regulators wasn’t any different from the roles other industries play in shaping policy and regulatory decisions. But public policy analysts said the context of Thursday’s offer -- in the heat of a campaign, during what amounted to an appeal for financial support -- crossed the line.
“This is a clear example of how money talks,” said Steven Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan research group that tracks money and influence in the political system. “Usually it’s interest groups that are vying for the attention of elected officials, but around election time the tables are turned and it’s the elected officials that are vying for the attention of interest groups.”
Public-policy experts said Indian tribes are correct in arguing that they should have a voice in setting industry policy and oversight.
“The problem is, their large campaign contributions at least create the perception of corruption,” Ryan said.
Some gambling experts said seeking recommendations from tribes before filling gambling commission vacancies was appropriate. At the same time, they said it was crucial to preserve the commission’s independence.
The development of the gambling industry in Nevada “has shown how important it is to have strong regulation, which doesn’t necessarily mean an adversarial relationship between regulators and the casinos,” said Dave Schwartz, coordinator of the Gaming Studies Research Center at UNLV and author of “Suburban Xanadu,” a history of casinos in the United States.
“Politically, it is important to get some involvement from the tribes in the gambling control commission, since they are sovereign nations,” Schwartz said. “That’s crucial to give it any legitimacy. The downside is it could be said the industry is picking its own regulators.”
The dangers in California are made even greater by the growing political activity of Indian tribes involved in the gambling industry.
In New Jersey, for example, where much of the regulatory concern over the years has been directed at keeping the gambling industry free from organized crime, casinos are barred from making political contributions and have little input in the selection of state regulators overseeing their industry, said Linda M. Kassekert, chairwoman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
“Usually the industry does not have any input into the appointment process,” said Kassekert, a former education lobbyist. “When I was appointed last year, the industry had no idea who I was.”
Davis’ offer is already prompting a far less powerful sector of the California gambling industry -- card clubs -- to seek equal treatment.
“I would assume the governor would allow the vetting of candidates by the card clubs as well,” said Andrew A. Schneiderman, vice president of Commerce Casino, the state’s largest card club, and president of the Golden State Gaming Assn., which represents card clubs in California.