Impasse over tribal gaming accords ends

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deals for an unprecedented expansion of Indian gambling broke through a nine-month legislative impasse Wednesday, paving the way for as many as 17,000 more slot machines in Southern California.

The governor struck compacts last year with several tribes that agreed to give the state up to 25% of their additional gambling revenues. But the pacts stalled when some Democratic lawmakers objected that the accords were hostile to labor unions, and did not include a means for the state to oversee casino gambling reports to ensure receipt of its full share.

The accounting issues were resolved with four of the five tribes Wednesday. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) agreed to move ahead with the compacts, which the state Senate already had approved.

But union issues were not included, dealing labor a rare and embarrassing defeat in the Capitol, where unions vie alongside the tribes as the most powerful influence on the dominant Democrats.


“It’s an unbelievable, outrageous betrayal,” said Jack Gribbon, the California political director of Unite Here, a union that organizes casino and hotel workers. He said it was “disappointing” that Nunez, “who came out of the labor movement, would go for the big money and ignore the working poor.”

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in San Bernardino did not agree to the terms of Wednesday’s deal.

The participating tribes are the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which owns casinos in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage; the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Temecula; the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Palm Springs.

If the four agreements are approved, the number of slots those tribes could have would increase from 8,000 to 25,000, with the largest casinos having 7,500 each -- more than in any one site in Las Vegas.


The tribes would submit to auditing by the state to ensure that they accurately report their gambling profits and pay the state the money promised in the compacts. The state would receive copies of financial audits submitted to the federal government.

Lawmakers are relying on the added income to help balance the state budget. Schwarzenegger predicted last year that the gambling expansion would eventually net the state $539 million more a year. The nonpartisan legislative analyst’s office said the state might pull in far less: $200 million more annually.

The agreements also would require tribal casinos to assist state efforts to garnish the wages of employees who owe child or spousal support. That was an important issue for the Assembly’s 18 female Democrats, officials said.

The tribes would have to train employees to identify customers with excessive gambling habits and aid them in getting help. And they would ban identified problem gamblers, keep minors from loitering near gambling activity and restrict irresponsible gambling advertising.

“These agreements will enhance our already strong compacts and will give the Legislature the assurances they need to approve the compacts, which will bring in much-needed revenue for vital services and programs that Californians rely upon,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

Nunez issued a statement too -- castigating Schwarzenegger for failing to take lawmakers’ concerns into account when he negotiated the compacts.

“Before the governor moves forward on additional compacts,” Nunez said, “I urge him to respect the role of the Legislature.”

Wednesday’s compromises were incorporated into memoranda of agreements that will be presented to lawmakers for a vote along with the compacts. California compacts have not been altered in this way before, and some who favor the compromises, as well as some who oppose them, questioned whether they would stand up legally.


“I doubt that these documents would be enforceable,” said Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up for California, a nonprofit tribal gambling watchdog. She called the provisions “worthy” but said they should be included in the compacts.

Steve Maviglio, a senior advisor to Nunez, said the Legislature’s lawyers were confident that the side agreements would hold up.

Unions had pressed for the compacts to include provisions similar to some in compacts that Schwarzenegger negotiated with other tribes in 2004. In those accords, tribes pledged not to threaten or punish workers who attempted to organize. The provisions also allowed unions to represent workers if more than half signed authorization cards, an easier method of organizing.

Schwarzenegger has refused to renegotiate the compacts on principle, as the law says that the deals are to be struck between the governor and tribes. Senate Democrats, who had borne labor’s wrath in passing them last year, did not want to go through the same fight again this year.

Andrew Lamar, a spokesman for Senate President Don Perata (D-Oakland), said the Senate had not seen the side agreements and had not decided what to do when the new measures came before his chamber.

“It’s all new territory,” he said.

Both houses could vote on the agreements as early as today. A sixth compact, already approved by the Senate, also could come to a vote. It would permit 99 slot machines for the Yurok tribe in the isolated Northern California town of Klamath.

The tribe has been struggling for two years to get state approval for gambling. The Yurok is the largest tribe in California and one of the poorest, and has asked for the slot machines to help keep its gas station open for the winter.


The fate of the San Manuel compact was unclear, since the tribe balked at the side agreements.

It also was unclear whether Nunez would allow the Morongo compact to move forward, advisors said. Although Morongo agreed to the new provisions, in recent months the tribe has angered the speaker by airing television advertisements -- and sending mail in the districts of some of Nunez’s members -- to pressure lawmakers to approve the compacts.

Morongo also spent more than $450,000 to help state Sen. Jenny Oropeza’s congressional race in a special election in Long Beach. Oropeza (D-Carson), a member of Perata’s caucus, lost Tuesday to Assemblywoman Laura Richardson, a member of Nunez’s Democratic caucus.