Native American tribes propose initiative to legalize sports betting in California

A man watches basketball games at a sportsbook in Las Vegas
Amado Nanalang watches basketball games while making bets at a sportsbook in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Betting on Lakers and Rams games would be legal in California under an initiative proposed Wednesday by a coalition of Native American tribes that want a piece of the action.

The filing of papers for an initiative supported by 18 tribes led by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians comes just four months after state Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) introduced a bill that would also put a sports betting measure on the 2020 ballot.

“Californians should have the choice to participate in sports wagering at highly regulated, safe and experienced gaming locations,” Mark Macarro, chairman of Pechanga, said in a statement. “We are very proud to see tribes from across California come together for this effort, which represents an incremental but important step toward giving Californians the freedom to participate in this new activity in a responsible manner.”


Attorneys for the proponents filed papers Wednesday with the state attorney general’s office seeking a title and summary for the initiative that would allow them to begin circulating petitions to qualify the measure.

Those behind the California proposals seek to join a national wave as some three dozen states have legalized sports betting or are considering it in response to a May 2018 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that invalidated a federal law prohibiting sports betting in all states outside Nevada.

Gray has estimated that illegal sports wagering in the United States amounts to about $150 billion a year.

The constitutional amendment proposed by the tribes for the November 2020 ballot would allow wagering on professional, college and some amateur sports — though not high school sports — at tribal gaming casinos and licensed racetracks.

Other card clubs have sought to offer sports betting and are likely to object to the narrow powers in the proposed initiative, which would not allow sports betting at card clubs.

“We would be disappointed at any initiative that allowed sports betting but that didn’t include card clubs,” said Kyle Kirkland, president of the California Gaming Assn. He said he had not seen the initiative proposed Wednesday and would have to consult with his members before taking a final position.


The initiative would impose a 10% tax on gross gaming revenue derived from sports wagering for public safety, mental health programs, education and regulatory costs.

The measure would also expand the tribal gaming compact powers to allow craps and roulette at tribal casinos.

Supporters would have to collect the signatures of 997,139 registered voters to qualify the initiative, but the Native American tribes are a well-funded, politically potent group that should have no problem making the ballot.

The supporters of the initiative include several tribes that operate casinos in California, including the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the Barona Band of Mission Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

“A strong, well-regulated gaming industry is of utmost importance to California’s tribal governments and the public,” said Steve Stallings, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn. “This initiative allows sports wagering in a responsible manner and provides for transparency and strict regulation.”