Coalition targets tribal expansion

Jul 31, 2007 6:29 AM

A coalition of labor and horse racing interests want to smother the tribal gaming expansion negotiated by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Last week, the owner of two racetracks and the hotel workers’ union announced a campaign that could put four new initiatives on the February ballot and cost tens of millions of dollars. Some tribes with casinos that are not part of the expansion said they might join the effort.

The coalition wants to undo legislation Schwarzenegger signed into law July 10 to allow four tribes in Riverside and San Diego counties to more than double or triple the number of slot machines in their casinos.

Jack Gribbon, state political director of the hotel and casino workers’ union, Unite Here, submitted paperwork to the attorney general’s office to begin the referendum process.

Unlike tribal compacts the governor signed in 2004, the targeted agreements do not include provisions that make it easier for unions to organize workers.

Gribbon said that if the legislation is not undone, "tens of thousands of workers who are the engine behind this extraordinarily lucrative industry will not have significant rights for 23 years."

Referendum backers said more than 2 million signatures must be collected by early October, which could cost at least $4 million. The coalition intends to qualify four separate measures for the Feb. 5 ballot.

At stake are the governor’s compacts with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which owns casinos in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage; the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Temecula; the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which owns a casino along Interstate 10 near Banning; and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation near El Cajon.

The compacts would allow the tribes to add 17,000 slot machines to the 8,000 they now operate. At full expansion, the Pechanga and Morongo casinos could be more than twice as big as the largest in Las Vegas.

In return, the tribes would pay the state between 15% and 25% of revenue from additional slot machines. Schwarzenegger has said the agreements could generate $300 million next year for schools, public safety, healthcare and other programs.

"The governor stands by his compacts," said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart. "They’re a good deal for the state, the tribes and the local communities."

Unite Here will team with Bay Meadows Land Co., which owns Hollywood Park in Inglewood and Bay Meadows near San Francisco, two of the state’s five private thoroughbred tracks.

Racing officials seek payments from the tribes that could be used to boost horse-racing stakes and presumably attract more bettors in an industry that has seen wagers at the tracks decline by nearly 60% since 1990, in part because of competition from tribal casinos. The race industry has failed in recent years to get legislative and voter approval to install video gambling terminals and slot machines.

Bay Meadows spokesman Greg Larsen said implementation of the compacts "would put at risk the jobs of more than 50,000 middle-class workers as well as the future of the industry itself."

Other casino-owning tribes may join the coalition, said Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney representing several tribes that signed different agreements with Schwarzenegger in 2004.

Dickstein said that unlike the 2004 agreements, which require tribes to make higher payments to the state as they add slot machines, the latest accords are structured in a way that encourages expansion.

The new alliance will face some of the richest tribes in the state with a track record of heavy spending on political consultants and advertising. Each side could end up spending $30 million to $40 million on the referenda campaign, predicted Garry South, a consultant to the California Tribal Business Alliance, whose members include Auburn and Pala.

The tribes defended their deals as good for the state.

Agua Caliente spokeswoman Nancy Conrad said, "We can’t understand why anybody would want to erase the gains for schools, the extra jobs that this brings”¦. This is one of the fastest-growing sectors in employment in the state."