California Legislature approves huge expansion of Indian gambling

Sacramento — The Legislature removed a key hurdle to passing a state budget Thursday, agreeing to allow four Indian tribes to expand casino gambling in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the state.

The action ended what had been a lengthy legislative logjam that pitted two special interest titans: labor groups vs. casino-operating Indian tribes. The tribes won.

Labor leaders said they opposed the deals because they did not contain enforceable provisions to protect casino employees or give unions the right to organize.

„This is a very serious abandonment of 100,000 workers in the state,“ said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

The compacts will allow four Southern California gambling tribes to add 17,000 slot machines to their casinos, a 30 percent increase in the number of slots currently operating in the state.

The issue has been divisive in Sacramento for months. Schwarzenegger and five Indian tribes agreed last year to the gambling expansion: The tribes would get to add thousands of slot machines, and in return state government would receive millions per year in badly needed revenue.

Assembly Democrats blocked the deals because labor groups, among their most important allies, objected. They wanted the right to organize casino workers and sought provisions that would force tribes to adhere to state and federal labor laws.

Schwarzenegger revived the compacts this year, pushing lawmakers to approve them as a way to help balance the state’s budget. The Senate passed them in April, but they stalled in the Assembly.

This week, Schwarzenegger, the tribes and legislative leaders worked out a compromise in which the tribes would voluntarily agree to some concessions sought by unions and Democrats. Compacts with four of the five tribes sailed through the Assembly on Thursday after Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez said the tribes had agreed verbally to allow unions to organize casino workers.

The four gambling tribes whose compacts won approval are: the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego; the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Temecula; the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs; and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Cabazon.

A fifth, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in San Bernardino, would not agree to provisions favorable to labor. That tribe’s compact, which was passed by the Senate, remains in limbo in the Assembly.

The governor’s office has estimated the gambling expansion, assuming the five compacts were approved, would pump more than USD 500 million a year into state coffers over the 25-year life of the agreements. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the figure would be closer to USD 200 million next year.

The logjam cleared after the governor’s office negotiated nonbinding side agreements to the existing compacts with the four tribes.

Under those agreements, the tribes agreed to give the state financial audits to prove they are contributing the accurate share of gambling revenues. They also agreed to show proof that they are providing workers‘ compensation, fighting gambling addiction and complying with court orders to withhold employees‘ wages for child and family support.

The Senate and Assembly approved those side agreements Thursday. But to win enough votes for the actual compacts, Nunez, D-Los Angeles, had to persuade the four tribes separately to agree to the union-organizing provision.

Nunez’s failure to secure that agreement in writing earned him the wrath of labor leaders.

„There is no enforceability whatsoever in holding anybody to anything,“ Pulaski said. „It’s not a substantive promise on the part of the speaker.“

Nunez told reporters afterward that some tribal leaders offered to commit their union-organizing pledges to writing, but he said that was unnecessary because he would announce it on the chamber floor.

Nunez, a former labor organizer in Los Angeles, said he could not negotiate all the safeguards sought by union leaders because the Legislature is only ratifying compacts previously negotiated by the governor.

„Somehow, an undue burden is placed on me to do the work that is done by the administration and not by the Legislature,“ Nunez said in response to the union criticism. „But I will tell you my labor record stands on its own.“

While there was no public debate in the Assembly, a handful of lawmakers rose in the Senate to object. They said they opposed an expansion of casino gambling and the voluntary nature of the side agreements with the tribes.

„It doesn’t have any legal enforceability,“ said Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles. „We (in the Senate) looked people in the eye and told them why and how we voted. … If we don’t like the compacts, vote them down.“

Tribal casinos across the state already operate 58,120 slot machines and took in USD 7.7 billion in revenue in 2006, according to a private, nationwide analysis of tribal gambling revenue released this week. By comparison, Nevada’s casinos took in revenue of USD 12.6 billion in 2006.

Sen. Jack Scott, D-Altadena, voted against the side agreements and said he opposes the slot-machine expansion.

„I didn’t move to California with the idea in mind that it would become Nevada. And it is slowly becoming Nevada,“ Scott said. „More and more, we’re becoming like all kinds of addicts: We’re becoming dependent on something that I don’t think is productive as far as the economy of the state is concerned.“

Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga tribe, said in a statement that the compacts „will be a cornerstone for future generations of Pechanga. We look forward to the opportunities and certainty this compact provides Pechanga, California and our local community.“

Separately, the Assembly also approved an agreement to allow the Yurok Indians to install up to 99 slot machines at their reservation near Klamath in Del Norte County. The 5,000-member tribe is the state’s largest but also among its poorest.