referendum battle over a major expansion of Indian
casino gambling in California already resembles the
stretch run of a bruising political campaign -- despite
the fact nothing has even qualified for the ballot.
But with signature gatherers circulating petitions for
Feb. 5 referendums seeking to stop four of the Golden
State's richest tribes from adding up to 17,000 new slot
machines, big campaign dollars are flowing and the
political vitriol is in full bloom.
The Southern California casino tribes -- the Pechanga
Band of Luiseño Indians, the Agua Caliente Band of
Cahuilla Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians
and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation -- have
already put up $20 million to fight the proposed
Meanwhile, horse-racing interests, the UNITE HERE
hospitality workers union and two other tribes -- the
United Auburn Indian Community near Sacramento and the
Pala Band of Mission Indians in San Diego County -- have
raised more than $4.6 million in a bid to qualify the
The proposed referendums seek to overturn gambling
agreements -- signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and
approved by the Legislature -- that would allow the four
Southern California tribes to add between 3,000 and
5,500 new slot machines each.
Opponents of the gambling compacts have until Oct. 8
to gather and submit 433,971 valid signatures of
registered voters for four separate referendums.
Petition backers accuse the Southern California
tribes of using paid activists to harass and intimidate
signature gatherers. The tribes accuse some petition
circulators of giving false information on the gambling
The Pechanga, Agua Caliente, Morongo and Sycuan
tribes are already running television commercials in
major state markets, hyping the compacts as a $9 billion
boon to the state treasury through casino
revenue-sharing payments over the next 20 years.
Should the measures qualify, opponents have all but
promised to run advertisements contrasting the wealth of
the four tribes -- ranging between $200 million and $425
million in net slot machine winnings in 2005 -- with the
hardships of impoverished Indians or smaller gambling
The opponents' coalition -- No on the Unfair Gambling
Deals -- charges that the casino agreements ignore
workers' rights and allow an unprecedented California
gambling expansion -- surpassing the total slot machines
at the Bellagio, MGM Grand, Caesars Palace, Mirage and
Mandalay Bay resorts in Las Vegas.
"This is a change in gambling policy that would
permit one of the largest expansions of gambling in U.S.
history and unfairly benefit four tribes at the expense
of others," said spokesman Al Lundeen.
Roger Salazar, spokesman for the four tribes'
Coalition to Protect California's Budget & Economy, said
it has launched a campaign "to let Californians
understand the benefits of these agreements" before
waiting to see if the referendums challenging them
qualify for the ballot.
"What you have are wealthy gambling interests that
don't want competition bankrolling a signature effort,"
The compacts' opponents include the Pala tribe, a
direct casino competitor to Pechanga, and United Auburn
-- whose Thunder Valley casino is one of the state's
most lucrative. The two tribes, contributing $500,000
each to the referendum drive, charge that side
agreements for the compacts violate federal law. And
they complain that the Southern California tribes would
pay a lower share of slot machine revenues to the state
than they do.
While the UNITE HERE union contributed $1 million,
the largest contributions to the opposition have come
from the Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows horse-racing
tracks and their property companies, which have raised
more than $2.6 million.
Greg Larson, a spokesman for Hollywood Park and Bay
Meadows, said California's racing industry is suffering
financially from competition from the state's
fast-growing Indian casino industry and can't compete
with out-of-state tracks that augment racing purses with
revenue from on-site slot machines.
Larson said the compacts threaten the long-term
economic viability of a California horse-racing industry
that employs "50,000 middle-class workers."
Charging that the opponents are gambling investors
seeking an edge, Salazar notes that the real estate
company of Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows CEO Terry
Fancher recently joined in the purchase of the Sahara
Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
The four south state tribes may have cause for worry
from proposed referendums that would require a "yes"
vote to uphold the gambling compacts and a "no" vote to
That is the opposite of the formula for state
initiatives -- which are often defeated by skeptical
voters if there is significant financial opposition
against initiative sponsors seeking a "yes" vote.
"There's no question that when you get into a
competitive financial war, the 'no' side usually wins,"
said political consultant Bill Carrick. "But the irony
here is that the people using this process are the 'no'