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Arizona tribes circle the wagons in gaming fight

Nov 5, 2002 5:13 AM

   There is a pitched, old-time Wild West battle raging 500 miles southeast of Las Vegas, and this time around a lot of people are rooting for the Indians.

   There is heavy wampum at stake, and perhaps even a governorship.

   Arizona is battling over Indian gaming, or rather an expansion of it to the state’s horse and dog tracks, who want in on the act. This time it is the Indians who have formed the wagons in a circle, and they have newfound casino money to spend on the fight.

   They have spent a lot of it. Just under $21 million from 17 Arizona tribes who have formed a coalition to support Proposition 202, which directs the governor to approve new tribal gaming compacts, allots each tribe between one and four gaming facilities including between 475 and 1,400 slot machines and 75 — 100 card tables, and provides that between 1% and 8% of the tribes’ gross income goes to fund statewide programs.

   Those programs are apple pie and motherhood, hard to argue against.  They include classroom size reduction, teacher salary increases, reading and dropout prevention, trauma and emergency services, wildlife conservation, problem gambling and tourism, and general funds for cities, towns and counties.

   That’s a pretty big bag of goodies, and shortly before election day 45% of voters favored Proposition 202, 41% opposed it, and 14% weren’t sure how they would vote.

   There also was Proposition 200, another Indian-backed measure, this one supported by the Colorado River Indian Tribes, a single tribe in western Arizona that put up $10 million to support its idea, which also calls for the governor to approve new tribal gaming compacts. Under it, each tribe would get three gaming facilities with 1,000 to 1,400 slots and 20 gaming tables at each facility, with 3% of the tribes’ net income going to fund programs for non-tribal and tribal community college and university scholarships and elderly healthy care. A few days before election day, it was doomed, with only 13% of voters favoring it, 71% opposing it, and 16% undecided.

   And then there was the racetracks’ measure, Proposition 201, which would permit horse and dog tracks to operate up to 10 facilities statewide with 550-950 machines each, and each Indian tribe to have 1 — 3 facilities with between 600 and 2,400 slots and 50 — 75 card tables. The tracks would pay 40% of gross revenue and the tribes 8% of gross to the state general fund and to programs for kindergarten to grade 3 reading, prescription medicines for seniors, rural health care, city and town police, fire and emergency services, college scholarships, problem gaming and tourism. It was in trouble too, with only 14% favoring it, 70% opposed, and 16% undecided in an Arizona Republic poll.

   The catch is that for any of the three propositions to pass, it needed 50% plus 1 vote of the total votes cast. If none of the three passed — a possibility — the issue goes back to the governor and legislature, and perhaps to the courts.

   To give an idea of what kind of dollars these three propositions have generated, consider these numbers reported in the Arizona Republic.

   Through October 21, $106 million has been raised nationally for 62 ballot propositions, most of them in western states. More than a third of that national amount — $37.3 million — has gone into the campaigns for the three Arizona propositions involving Indian gaming.

   That’s more than has been spent on seven ballot items in California, and more than has been spent in Washington, Oregon or Michigan, according to the Ballot Iniative Strategy Foundation in Boston, which tracks such things.

   Because 10% of votes in Arizona are Indian votes, the issue very well could decide the gubernatorial race between Democrat Janet Napolitano and Republican Matt Salmon as well as who gets slots.

   The 17-tribe coalition increased spending efforts in the final days before Tuesday’s election.  Not since Custer and the Little Big Horn have the Indians appeared so strong, and many think they’re entitled to the spoils of victory.