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Expanding The Reach Of Indian Gaming:

If there was one special interest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vilified most while he ran to replace ex-Gov. Gray Davis in the 2003 recall election, it was Indian casinos.

Yet, few special interests have fared better under Schwarzenegger’s administration than those same gaming palaces.

Not only have they multiplied the numbers of slot machines operating in their dozens of gaming houses all over California, but the governor has done all he could to allow them to move off the reservations and rancherias to which the year-2000 Proposition 1A appeared to limit their gaming.

Not only did he approve a huge casino in the San Francisco Bay area’s urban suburb of San Pablo, only to see it seriously scaled back after locals objected, but now he’s okayed side-by-side casinos in the high desert city of Barstow for two poverty-stricken tribes whose lands lie hundreds of miles from the planned casino sites.

The obvious rationale for Schwarzenegger’s apparent Indian gaming flip-flop is money. He sees tribal casinos as an effortless way to raise funds for the state without hiking taxes for anyone else.

But what about the intent of the law? The 1998 ballot initiative that allowed large-scale Indian gaming was supposed to guarantee there would be no more poverty-ridden Indian tribes in California, as the dozens of gaming tribes would be required to fork over a cut of their proceeds to their non-gaming brethren. That money has never amounted to more than a fraction of the casinos’ profit.

Which left tribes like Humboldt County’s Big Lagoon Rancheria, near Trinidad on the North Coast, and the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians of San Diego County hurting. Now, if state legislators okay the Schwarzenegger-approved twin casino plan for them, they’ll never be poor again.

Not only will the two small tribes earn a state-estimated total of at least $175 million a year, but they’ll generate about 3,700 permanent jobs for Barstow, increasing real estate values there and helping other businesses.

And these casinos could prove even more profitable than those optimistic forecasts indicate. Situated on the main highway between Southern California’s big population centers and Las Vegas, they would quickly become destinations, or at least way stops, for myriad bus tours that regularly take senior citizens to slot machines where they can toss whatever extra money they may have.

Add in the high current price of gasoline, and the Barstow location looks like a guaranteed bonanza.

The only problem is that in an effort to prevent gambling from becoming an unhealthy epidemic, the ’98 initiative specifically limited “slot machines, lottery games and banking and percentage card games to…tribal lands…”

By no stretch of the imagination was Barstow any kind of tribal land when that proposition passed. The idea now is that the tribes would buy the property, thus transforming it instantly into the kind of land that qualifies.

This tactic has not held up in the San Francisco Bay area, where several tribes have attempted since 2000 to set up shop on just-purchased urban property.

But Schwarzenegger, who reluctantly agreed after the San Pablo debacle not to allow new casinos in urban areas, notes that Barstow is hardly urban.

The only obstacle to all this is the Legislature. And that obstacle may prove insurmountable. No legislative hearings are in the immediate offing, and Democratic state Senator Dean Florez of Shafter, chairman of the Senate’s Governmental Organization Committee, consistently opposes off-reservation Gaming. That includes a casino now proposed along state Highway 99 between Madera and Merced.

“Here we have a tribe (the Big Lagoon Rancheria) that’s moving 700 miles to Barstow,” Florez said last winter. “That has more to do with competing with Las Vegas than anything else.”

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with competing for some of the bucks Las Vegas now gets. Nor with giving a sudden windfall to two poor Indian tribes. What may be wrong with the current proposal is that a third tribe, the Chemehuevis who live on the California side of Lake Havasu, would be specifically precluded from continuing previous negotiations with Barstow.

Amend the Schwarzenegger plan to include them and the only problem would be that the whole thing runs contrary to the intent of the ballot proposition that allowed Indian gaming to go big time in California. It may also be completely contrary to the will of the voters, which Schwarzenegger likes so much to cite whenever he finds it convenient.

That by itself may be enough to kill this deal.

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