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A Middling Hand for State

Once again, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised the moon and settled for an asteroid. Not a bad asteroid -- not a real clinker -- mind you, but one offering considerably less than lunar glow. In fact, the most interesting parts of the tentative deal between Schwarzenegger and the Indian tribes that own about 1/10th of the state’s casinos have little to do with the increased state funding the governor was after.

The money details are well known by now -- more gambling profits from Indian tribe-owned casinos will go to the state as “fees,” and the casinos get to add all the slot machines they want, paying an additional fee (not a tax, of course) for each machine.

The five tribes in the deal also have yielded a significant amount of their claimed sovereignty by agreeing to adhere to state environmental rules and work with local governments stretched thin by casinos’ demands on police and fire services. The casinos’ responsibility for jammed, inadequate feeder roads will be on the table if they seek to expand. The pacts provide that disputes be settled by binding arbitration.

This is a sizable improvement over existing compacts. A few tribes have worked voluntarily with cities and counties to ease problems -- one tribe bought a fire truck for the local department -- but in the Mother Lode town of Plymouth, residents voted to recall members of the City Council for approving construction of a casino.

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The five tribes that signed are in San Diego County and the Sacramento area. Some tribes had balked at agreeing to work with local governments. “To agree to this condition would be an abrogation of our tribal sovereignty,” Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, told The Times’ Dan Morain. The Pechangas did not join the deal with Schwarzenegger. Other tribes apparently were content with the previous limit of 2,000 slot machines per tribe, though one has brought suit, alleging the deal will crowd small, rural tribes out of the gambling business.

Getting back to the money, even the $1-billion lump sum that the tribes will pay up front won’t go directly to help pay off the state’s budget shortfall; rather, it will restore the $1 billion that Schwarzenegger earlier took from transportation funds in balancing the budget. That’s a notable amount, especially considering the deplorable state of the state’s roads and highways.

Schwarzenegger didn’t get anything close to the 25% of casino winnings that he promised in his campaign, and he failed to get a majority of casino owners to join the deal. But in the long run, for the state to depend on casinos is only a gambling addiction with inevitable social costs. Involving casino owners in the civic health of surrounding communities may end up being more important than the money.


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