Casino deals got a nudge

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday he personally called U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and asked him to give „some attention“ to four Indian gambling compacts before the federal government reversed itself and finalized the agreements last month.

The action has led to widespread speculation that one or more of the tribes might claim the deals to expand their casinos are valid, even if voters reject the compacts next month.

Schwarzenegger, who wants voters to authorize 17,000 more slot machines at four Southern California casinos, told The Bee editorial board that he’s unclear whether the federal action would override voters should they reject the agreements.

„I thought if the voters did not approve it, it’s gone,“ he said. „But maybe you’re asking me that … because there is a way out of it? That will be quite interesting. I don’t know.“

Four tribes – the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation – are seeking an expansion of slot machines at their casinos. They say the compacts could bring USD 9 billion to the state over two decades.

Though the Legislature and the governor approved the compacts, opponents placed the compacts on the Feb. 5 ballot in an effort to overturn them.

In early September, Secretary of State Debra Bowen sent the four approved compacts to the Interior Department for federal approval. But they mysteriously disappeared soon after arriving and did not resurface for 80 days.

That was well after the federally mandated 45-day window for acting on the compacts had closed, meaning department officials had no choice but to deem them approved, which they did in late November or early December.

On Dec. 3, an official for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Interior Department, said the bureau would delay publishing a notice of the compacts‘ approval in the Federal Register to avoid more confusion about their legal status. But the official was overruled by superiors, and the approval was published Dec. 19.

Schwarzenegger told the editorial board that he did not specifically ask Kempthorne to publish the agreements, but asked him to make sure that „everything go through procedures.“

But Schwarzenegger’s communications director Matt David said later that the governor did bring up the publication issue with Kempthorne in a Dec. 6 call on another subject.

„He said that part of the deal for the compacts is that in order for them to be finalized, they had to be published in the federal registry, and that we need to make that happen,“ David said.

He said the governor was simply trying to ensure that the compacts were completed as required, not seeking to give the tribes a post-election legal advantage.

„The governor raised the issue because he believes it’s good policy and will bring needed revenue to the state, and he wants to see it become law,“ David said. „This was not an attempt to circumvent the voters on this issue.“

Schwarzenegger, who has appeared in ads in support of Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97, said the state needs additional gambling revenue as he begins to engage lawmakers in a discussion about California’s USD 14.5 billion fiscal crisis.

In the interview, Schwarzenegger also defended his endorsement of Proposition 93, the term-limits measure on the Feb. 5 ballot, even though it lacks a component to redraw legislative districts – a change he has sought since he was elected. The governor said his time in Sacramento has shown him that term limits have shifted political advantage away from lawmakers to special interests and lobbyists.

„When I came up here and started working with legislators, I really got a feel for things – who’s controlling what,“ he said. „It became very clear that the special interests and lobbyists are much better equipped to make decisions up here than the legislators.“

The term-limits initiative would reduce the maximum number of years from 14 to 12, but allow all to be served in one house or a combination of both. However, a controversial part of the measure would allow incumbents, including Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, to serve at least one extra term.

Schwarzenegger said he has developed a „trust“ with sitting legislative leaders and hopes to continue to work with them. The governor said he felt a loss when former Senate leader John Burton was termed out of the Legislature.

„I just got this groove going with this guy and we got to understanding each other and all of a sudden he’s being ripped away,“ Schwarzenegger said.

The governor said he and current lawmakers would be better able to tackle major issues facing the state, from the budget crisis to the state’s need for USD 500 billion worth of infrastructure improvements.

Besides, he said, „I really want some of those guys to stay.“