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California and the West

State Tribal Casino Debate Spills Over on U.S. Panel

Gaming: Commission on gambling hears economic benefits touted and use of banned games criticized.


DEL MAR — The debate over Indian casino gambling in California carried over Wednesday to a hearing of a federal commission studying the impact of gambling nationwide--though that panel can do little to address the divisiveness of the issue in California.

Much of the day's hearing, which attracted about 500 people, was given over to tribal leaders testifying that casino gambling has brought economic prosperity and the hope of continued economic growth to their reservations.

Gov. Pete Wilson's legal affairs advisor countered that the tribes' progress has come by violating state laws that ban some of the casino games the tribes operate.

At one point, an attorney who represents several California tribes blamed a federal law that, he said, has allowed the issue to evolve so contentiously in California.

"What's happening in California is a symptom of what's wrong" with the federal law, said Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney.

The federal law allows tribes to run the same type of gambling activities allowed elsewhere in the state, but only after the state and the tribes come to terms on exactly what kinds of gambling can occur and how it is to be regulated.

California bans the kinds of slot machines and house-banked games common in Nevada--but voters in 1984 approved the state's Lottery. Lottery-based games are the only ones that Wilson has said he will allow on reservation land.

The problem in California, Dickstein said, is that even before so-called compacts were signed between the tribes and the state, as mandated by the federal law, many tribes began running games that they deemed legal even without state permission. As video technology developed, gaming devices evolved into the types of machines that the state considers illegal.

The governor complained, but the tribes persisted--and federal authorities, who have jurisdiction over Indian gambling, generally did nothing. "Even the federal government was confused about what may or may not be legal," Dickstein said.

As a result, Dickstein told members of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, many tribes have run their existing casino operations so long that they don't want to defer to state authorities on the types of gambling they can offer.

"It's very difficult," he said, "to put the horses back in the barn."

The issue will come to a head in November, when state voters cast ballots on Proposition 5, an initiative sponsored by many Indian tribes to legalize the kinds of casino games they now offer, and to allow their proliferation without the approval of the governor or the Legislature.

That vote will occur long before the national gambling commission, which is holding hearings across the country, forwards its findings to Congress.

"What is happening in California is a microcosm of what's happening in the rest of the country," said commission Chairwoman Kay James.

Indeed, the debate over the benefits and liabilities of casinos on Indian reservations splits even the law enforcement community.

Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters used Wednesday's hearing to argue that "California has never confronted a ballot measure with more serious potential impact on law enforcement than Proposition 5. . . . Based on previous serious incidents at some existing tribal casino operations, this initiative will contribute to increased crime, complicated by the difficulty of enforcing laws on land that is not officially part of our legal jurisdiction."

But a letter written by Palm Springs Police Chief C. Lee Weigel, which was submitted to the commission by the Agua Caliente Indians, noted that "there is no significant change in our calls for service since the Spa Hotel began their enterprise of casino gaming, nor has crime increased as a result of the casino."

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