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Tribes circle the wagons over slots

Dec 7, 2004 6:21 AM

Reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s infamous parsing over the meaning of the word "is," two California tribes are battling the state over the definition of a slot machine.

Last week, representatives of the Morongo Band of Luiseno Indians in Riverside County failed to reach an understanding with state representatives over machines that could put their casino over the 2,000 limit of slots.

The tribe, along with the Pechanga Band in Riverside, contend that the machines — though looking and operating like slot machines — are video lottery terminals.

The tribes, in fact, have coined an expression to describe the machines — Tribal Instant Lottery Games (TILG).

The state has taken the position that the machines are indeed slot machines, and therefore subject to the 2,000-machine limit agreed to in their compacts with the state.

State officials are scheduled to meet with representatives of the Pechanga Band this week, and a second meeting with the Morongo Band is set for Dec. 13.

Insiders, however, say the tribes are steadfast in their beliefs and not likely to change their position on the machines.

Their position is critical, not only for themselves, but other gaming tribes in California. If the dispute ends up in federal court, and the court decides in the tribes’ favor, it could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost taxes.

Of the state’s 53 gaming tribes, nine have signed new or amended compacts with the state that allows them to offer more than 2,000 machines, but at the expense of a state gaming tax as well as labor and environmental concessions.

Should the Tribal Instant Lottery Games be determined legally distinct from slot machines, other tribes would gain a clear path to unbridled expansion of their slot inventory, without sharing their profits or submitting to increased state demands.

The Pechanga and Morongo Bands have until Jan. 7 (mandated by their compacts) to work out their differences with the state over the machines. If they can’t the matter will most likely head to federal court.