A prominent Indian leader on Wednesday dismissed as a "ludicrous proposition" Gov. Gray Davis' desire to collect an additional $1.5 billion a year in gambling revenue from California tribes, and said most tribes would be content to live with their existing 20-year agreements with the state.
Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians, said the style and substance of the governor's proposal had insulted Native Americans and made many of the 61 tribes with gambling agreements reluctant to renegotiate their current compacts with the state. The agreements went into effect in 2000.
"There could be a middle ground, but what has unfolded to this point has been insulting," Macarro said. "It's also been ham-handed."
Davis, with the support of California cities and counties, is seeking to renegotiate the agreements, citing environmental problems created by tribal casinos. He formally notified tribes of his intentions in a Feb. 28 letter, and last week the governor's negotiators requested that the tribes designate negotiators.
Earlier this week the governor's negotiators held their first meeting with representatives of more than 20 tribes. But Macarro's tribe, which operates a Riverside County casino, and many others have yet to respond to the governor's request.
Davis has until Monday to notify tribes that the state would like to renegotiate the revenue-sharing portion of the gambling agreements, which could also involve allowing tribes to expand their operations. Unlike tribes in some states, California tribes do not pay state taxes on gambling revenue, which is estimated to be as much as $5 billion a year.
Under the existing compacts, each tribe is allowed to operate two casinos with a combined maximum of 2,000 slot machines. Forty-one tribes make contributions to a trust fund for non-gaming and small-gaming tribes through a system of licenses and fees based on the number of slot machines a tribe operates. Twenty-eight tribes also make payments into a state "special distribution fund" that is supposed to be used for problem-gambling programs and other issues related to the tribal casinos.
Macarro said Davis offended tribes by the manner in which he made his proposals to seek more revenue and address environmental complaints. "The governor didn't even consult the tribes," Macarro said. "He didn't respect the government-to-government relationship."
Added Macarro: "Even more disrespectful is his demand that tribes cede jurisdiction over their lands to cities and counties, to give up that which is more important to us than all the casino revenues in the country, and that's sovereignty. Don't ask us to further erode our sovereignty."
Amber Pasricha, the governor's spokeswoman on gambling issues, said the governor's proposals for $1.5 billion in additional revenue sharing from the tribes and clarification of the environmental language of the agreements were "up for discussion. These are negotiations, so the two sides do have to agree."
"The governor respects all California tribes," Pasricha added. "He understands they are sovereign nations. He respects that it is a government-to-government relationship."
Macarro said the state isn't entitled to more money from the tribes.
"Tribal gaming revenues are governmental revenues," he said. "The use of these revenues is limited by federal law. These revenues are to provide for services to the tribe and for the welfare of its tribal citizens, just as the state of California uses tax revenues to provide services and the like to its own citizens."
Some tribes are willing to share more money with the state in exchange for the right to operate more slot machines, but Macarro said only a handful of tribes could profitably expand their casinos.
Macarro acknowledged the "apparent concerns about the growth of tribal government gaming in the state of California," but he and other tribal leaders say those concerns have been overblown.
"Most California tribal governments are doing what the cities and counties did not do," he said. "We are being responsible. We are reaching out to those very local governments. We are being good neighbors."
Macarro said gambling has given Native American tribes their first opportunity "to build a strong tribal economy. Tribal government gaming is helping to lift American Indians out of poverty here in California and other parts of the country."
He also touted its economic benefits to the state, including providing about 40,000 California jobs.