Cal tribes seek
massive growth

Nov 21, 2006 5:39 AM

When the California Legislature reconvenes in January, some of the state’s most powerful Indian tribes will resume their push for approval of gambling agreements that could launch the next big wave of casino expansion in the Golden State.

But ratification of those compacts won’t be easy as influential labor unions have expressed concern over provisions in the agreements, and the horse racing industry wants to be cut into the new deals.

Tribes have been lobbying for the new compacts, which could help generate more than $20 billion for education, roads, public safety and other state programs.

The agreements promise much more for the tribes, which could add up to 22,500 more slot machines, an expansion that would enable them to build some of the biggest casinos in the nation. The compacts would extend through 2030.

Under the deals signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pechanga, San Manuel and Morongo could operate up to 7,500 slots each. Sycuan and Agua Caliente could have up to 5,000. Their existing compacts limit the tribes to 2,000 slots each.

With those slot numbers, the new casinos would be on the scale of Foxwoods in Connecticut, which has 7,400 slots.

"It’s no small thing," said Jack Gribbon, state political director of UNITE HERE, the hotel and restaurant employees union that led the opposition to the compacts. "If it were achieved, it would be probably the single largest expansion of gambling in American history."

Gribbon’s union wants the compacts revised to include language that would make it easier to organize low-paid casino workers, and some state officials want racetracks to benefit as well.

The Schwarzenegger administration and the Legislature’s Republican leaders have indicated they are willing to support something to help the racing industry.

One of the state’s major racetracks, Inglewood’s Hollywood Park, is working closely with UNITE HERE. Hollywood Park President Jack Liebau and the union have invited legislators to a "horse racing/labor conference" later this month at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad.

"I think the tracks will be talking about the state of their industry," Gribbon said. "We will be talking about our drive to organize service workers in different industries."

California’s thoroughbred tracks say they cannot continue to compete against "racinos" in states such as New York, Pennsylvania and Florida that are, or will soon be, offering purses padded with slot-machine profits.

In private discussions earlier this year, the tracks sought a large new annual subsidy, on top of $50 million a year in license-fee relief the state has granted during the past decade. But the racing industry has been unable to unite behind a single proposal.

"I don’t think there’s anything on the table at the moment," said Craig Fravel, executive vice president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. "I think everybody was waiting to see how the election came out. There’s an opportunity between now and June or August to find something that works for everybody."

The Schwarzenegger administration, which negotiated the pending compacts, has repeatedly told the racetracks that it was willing to consider something to help them survive.