Let the gaming begin

Sometime next month, representatives from California’s Native American tribes will meet with members of Governor Gray Davis’ administration to renegotiate the gambling compacts that define the state’s limited regulatory influence over the multibillion-dollar Native American casino industry. In the interests of promoting a fair game for the coming negotiations, we think it’s high time that all sides put their cards on the table.

First, we’d like to call Davis on his bluff to raise $1.5 billion in revenue for the state from the casinos. Davis proposes to do this by removing the current limit of 2,000 slot machines per casino and by asking tribes to contribute up to 25 percent of their gaming revenues to the state voluntarily. We realize the governor is nervous about the deficit, but because gambling clearly attracts more people from lower income brackets, this is a blatantly regressive and unfair form of taxation.

That brings us to the other side of the table.

We tend to agree with the California Nations Indian Gaming Association that “the voters of California intentionally limited gaming to Indian tribes when they passed Proposition 1A.” By supporting the measure with 64 percent of the vote in March 2000, we believe Californians were saying two things: (1) The state’s Native Americans have been given a raw deal and deserve a lucky break. (2) That lucky break should not, however, be allowed to transform the Golden State into another Nevada.

Unfortunately, exactly the opposite may be happening. It is true that a few California tribes have benefited substantially from casino revenues since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1988, but poverty levels remain stubbornly high on many reservations in the state, according to 2000 Census data.

But, rather than focus on helping raise the boats of all the state’s Native Americans, many successful gaming tribes have instead donated hundreds of millions of dollars to state politicians—hoping to create a regulatory climate more akin to Carson City than Sacramento. Then, these tribes have had the audacity to insist that tribal sovereignty exempts them from reporting these donations in a timely fashion.

Into this arena came the news last week that a coalition of 21 tribes in the state say they are open to negotiating with the governor about increasing their contributions to the state as well as mitigating their off-reservation impacts, in trade—naturally—for the added slot machines. That’s at least a step in the right direction considering that, up to this point, tribal leaders have seemed unwilling to even consider increased obligations to the state.

But it remains to be seen if the state and the 61 tribes in question can enter into reasonable new compacts voluntarily that address community concerns and assist more than a few Native Americans. Otherwise, this largely unregulated industry risks the stringent restrictions that are sure to come if it refuses to change its ways. Let the gaming begin!