No More Casino Surprises

Californians drew a line in the sand Tuesday with their rejection of Propositions 68 and 70. Their message: Stop the rampant expansion of casino gambling. Voters signaled their desire for a timeout, a public debate on just how much gaming the state should have and where. More is at stake than how much tax money can be milked from these gambling palaces; particularly at issue is the welfare of communities that surround them.

Still, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is intent on secret negotiations for more tribal casino compacts, seeking up to 25% of their revenues for the state. In fact, that seems to be part of his strategy for bailing the state out of its financial hole. After the election, he noted he had said during his run for governor that “one of the things where we can get a lot of revenue is from the Indian gaming tribes.”

Sponsors threw nearly $60 million into the unsuccessful campaigns for 68 and 70. The first would have allowed urban card rooms and racetracks to operate 30,000 slot machines, while the second would have lifted most restrictions from tribal casino gambling. The governor, to his credit, campaigned vigorously against both measures.

When voters approved tribal casinos in 1998 and 2000, they were promised a modest increase in gambling. Then-Gov. Gray Davis signed compacts with 59 tribes that allowed each to run up to 2,000 slot machines on their lands, primarily in rural areas. Schwarzenegger stunned the Bay Area this summer when he announced a deal with the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians for a 5,000-slot mega-casino in San Pablo. After widespread opposition, the governor scaled back the agreement. The controversy points up the need for restrictions on casinos in urban areas.


Schwarzenegger at least is demanding in his recent deals that tribes mitigate environmental impacts and deal with local governments on fire and police services, traffic control and the like -- something that Davis punted on. Schwarzenegger also said he would include legislators in the process, although it isn’t clear how. The public deserves a say as well.

From the beginning, the rationale for casino gambling was to recognize the sovereignty of California tribes, help atone for generations of mistreatment and improve conditions on tribal lands. The results are mixed. Only a few very small tribes have become fabulously wealthy. Others remain mired in poverty. And California is dotted with casinos that rival all but the biggest Nevada resorts.

When Davis negotiated the first round of compacts, he set standards that applied to all. The next compacts will set the pattern for years, but no one knows what the parameters will be: Will tribes be allowed 2,500 slots, 5,000, or more? In urban areas or rural? The governor should let the people in on his strategy and give them a chance to comment on it before surprising them with more urban mega-casinos.