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Several Calif. Dems Benefiting From Tribal Cash
$1.6 Million In Donations Given To Sponsors Of Indian Gaming Bills

KPIX TV 4/12/07

(AP) SACRAMENTO Democratic lawmakers carrying bills that would launch a massive expansion of Indian gambling in California have benefited from $1.6 million in tribal donations in recent years, according to an Associated Press review of campaign finance reports.

The contributions helped Democratic senators' campaigns and political causes, either directly or through donations to independent committees that supported them.

The AP review of tribal donations comes as the Legislature is considering a series of gambling-expansion bills similar to ones that died last year when they had Republican sponsors. The bills returned this year with new sponsors, all members of the Legislature's majority party.

The donations raise questions about how closely the Democrat-controlled Senate will scrutinize the bills. Critics, including the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, say the agreements will not deliver as much tax revenue as promised.

Questions raised during a recent legislative hearing further indicated the agreements would limit the state's ability to test whether slot machines are being run fairly and will roll back union protections for tens of thousands of casino workers.

The AP's review showed a number of financial ties between the bills' authors and gambling tribes.

Two freshmen Democratic senators who were elected last year with the help of $540,000 in contributions from tribes are carrying bills that would let those tribes more than triple—to 7,500 -- the number slot machines they can operate.

Tribes also contributed more than $900,000 to an account controlled by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata to support bond measures he backed on November's ballot.

For Perata, D-Oakland, support for the tribes is nothing new. He voted for a casino-expansion bill last year and says the Legislature should not stand in the way of tribes' sovereignty.

This year he has co-authored a bill for a new Indian casino in Northern California and has a full-time tribal liaison in his office. Tribes also have poured $74,000 into his election campaigns and legal defense fund since 2000.

Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, author of two other casino expansion bills and chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, has taken more than $49,000 from tribes since 2000.

Republican authors of last year's casino-expansion bills also had taken similarly large donations from tribes. But this year, switching sponsorship of the bills to lawmakers from the majority party gives gambling tribes a better chance of getting the bills passed, at least in the Senate.

The fate of the bills in the Assembly, where the Democratic leadership has strong ties to labor unions that oppose most of the compacts, is unclear.

The tribes turned to the Democrats last year after their long-standing Republican allies failed to win approval for the expansion of Indian gambling. The tribes had struck the deals with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who agreed to renegotiate compacts originally signed under former Gov. Gray Davis in exchange for the state getting a share of casino revenue.

The agreements will allow for 22,500 new slot machines, or more than enough to fill 10 Las Vegas-sized casinos. Schwarzenegger said he signed them because they will bring in an estimated $500 million a year over 30 years in new tax revenue. But the timing of the governor's deals also assured that the tribes would not oppose his re-election campaign.

It became clear only this week which lawmakers would carry the bills in the Legislature, which must ratify the agreements before they become law. The tribes cleared what may be their first and only hearing on the compacts before the Senate votes on them, possibly as early as next week.

The deals won support from a Senate committee despite hours of testimony from labor unions, the horse racing industry, community groups and others who warned the deals were bad public policy.

"The money certainly raises questions as to why so many lawmakers are supporting these compacts when so many important questions have gone unanswered," said Jack Gribbon, California political director for Unite Here, the casino and hotel workers union, who testified against most of the deals.

Freshmen Senators Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, and Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, are among those authoring the bills.

Padilla and Correa co-sponsored a bill to let the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in San Bernardino increase the number of slot machines they operate from 2,000 to 7,500.

The tribe contributed nearly $50,000 to a committee run by supporters of Padilla. It also donated $350,000 to campaign committees that spent an almost equal amount to support Correa's bid for the Senate.

Correa, a former investment banker, said he was unaware that San Manuel appeared to have spent so much money on his behalf.

"It's news to me," he said. "I don't know whether they have made a contribution to me or not. I imagine they have, but tribes have also spent money against me in the past."

Correa said he sponsored the bill because San Manuel asked him to do so and said his support for tribal sovereignty goes back more than a decade.

"I believe that if after so many hundreds of years that the tribes have learned how to survive, that's a very good thing," he said.

San Manuel spokesman Jacob Coin defended the tribe's political donations.

"The tribe believes very strongly that our contribution is part of a contribution, in a legal way, to the political process," he said. "I will say whatever we contributed pales in comparison to what we stand to contribute to the people of California under this compact. It's in the billions of dollars between now and the year 2030."

Padilla also is carrying a similar bill for the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Temecula. Accounts controlled by Padilla and his supporters have taken a total $163,000 from tribes.

The remaining Indian gambling bill is being carried by Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Martinez. It would allow the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians to increase the number of slot machines in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage from 2,000 to 5,000. Torlakson has taken $12,500 from Agua Caliente.

Getting the compacts through the Legislature is key to Schwarzenegger's proposed spending plan for the budget year that begins in July. He and the tribes have said the state would receive $506 million next year if the deals are approved.

Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill, however, has said the revenue projections are unrealistic. In a report to lawmakers in February, she said the state would see less than half that, about $200 million. The compacts also will cost the state tens of millions of dollars in hidden costs, she said.

The state's general fund currently gets $33 million a year from tribes, who also are required to give money to poor tribes and local communities that are affected by Indian casinos.

The new compacts drop requirements that the richest tribes pay into funds to cover gambling addiction programs and costs to run the state's Gambling Control Commission. They also reduce the amount tribes pay into the funds to help impoverished tribes, making the state responsible for covering the lost revenue.

The proposed compacts also weaken requirements that tribes perform periodic independent financial audits to ensure they are giving California its fair share of revenue.

Despite such concerns, the tribes already appear on the road to success in the Senate.

After 12 hours of hearings before the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, its chairman, Democrat Dean Florez, issued a statement concluding there's more to like than dislike about the compacts.

"Are they good financial deals for the state of California? Yes, they do give us a better deal than the state's getting right now," he said in an interview.

He added that his only concern was that the compacts' relieved the tribes of having to pay for problem-gambling programs.

"We'll probably go back to the tribes at some point and ask them to do more," he said.
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