We need a better deal with tribes

Marty Hittelman is president of the California Federation of Teachers.

Remember when Californians voted in 1998 to approve Indian gaming? Most of us thought we were giving Native Americans throughout the state an opportunity to lift themselves out of decades of poverty. Now, 10 years later, we have Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97, which would uphold agreements between the state and four Indian tribes that never should have been approved by the Legislature and the governor.

These compacts are basically identical, except each covers a different tribe -- the Pechanga, Morongo, Agua Caliente and Sycuan. They would increase the amount of revenue the tribes get and the number of slot machines they could operate -- an additional 17,000. That’s more than the number of slot machines at 12 big Las Vegas casinos -- such as the Bellagio and the MGM Grand -- put together.

As one of the largest expansions of gambling in U.S. history, these agreements would not be the rising tide to lift all boats, which is what voters had in mind when they approved Indian gaming. What we’d get instead is a tidal wave that would lift just four yachts. The four tribes are already wealthy and powerful enough to have put more than $100 million into the campaign to pass these deals.

The tribes aren’t even pretending to sell this as a matter of justice or equity. It’s all about money. The only reason being given to vote yes is that the tribes would pay some portion of their profits to the state.


Because money is the sole rationale for a yes vote, let’s follow the money -- except that we can’t. Under these deals, the tribes will know how much money they make from their thousands of new slot machines, but we won’t. That’s because the tribes will calculate and report the amount owed to the state, a disturbing change from past compacts that required it to be done by an accountant not employed by the tribes. And there’s nothing illegal about it; that’s the way these agreements were written.

There is something we do know: how much of this money would be guaranteed for education. None. Not a penny. Despite misleading ads that tell viewers schools will benefit, there is nothing in the compacts that sets money aside for schools.

In addition, the tribes’ promises of billions of dollars -- $9 billion by some estimates -- going to the state are overstated. The state’s impartial Legislative Analyst’s Office summed it up this way: “Even assuming that all of the 2006 compacts [the four now on the ballot] are ratified and a few more similar compacts are ratified in the future, we expect that compact-related sources will provide the general fund with less than 0.5% of its annual revenues for the foreseeable future.”

Less than one-half of 1% of the state’s budget needs -- maybe a couple of hundred million dollars a year. Maybe much less than that, according to the findings of a new report by two leading fiscal analysts. And that’s not remotely enough to make a difference to our current budget problems. The billions and billions in this deal will be the money these four tribes take in each year from their slot machines.


Although money is the only reason given to vote for the deals, there are other reasons to vote no. Casino workers don’t get even the most basic rights the rest of us take for granted, such as the state’s minimum-wage and anti-discrimination protections. Only much weaker federal laws apply on Indian land. And the language of these deals removes important environmental safeguards that protect communities around these casinos.

The Big Four tribes could have allotted some of their spoils-to-be with tribes that have smaller casinos or none. They didn’t. The revenue sharing touted in their ads comes from previous deals, and these new compacts will not add to it.

A no vote would tell Sacramento and the tribes that they need to go back and negotiate better deals for all Californians. Instead of a windfall for just four wealthy, powerful tribes, we can get a fair deal for all tribes, accountability on money that the state should receive, protection for the sensitive environment around these casinos and basic rights for the men and women who work in them. We can and should do better.