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DECISION '98 | PROPOSITIONS

Tribes, Utilities Prevail in Costly Battles; 1A Wins

November 04, 1998|TOM GORMAN and DOUG SHUIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

California Indian tribes, whose campaign for Proposition 5 was the costliest single-issue contest in U.S. political history, hit the jackpot Tuesday with a decisive victory for their casino gambling initiative.

Voters rejected another measure that was the subject of an expensive advertising campaign, Proposition 9, which called for an electricity rate cutback and an end to nuclear power subsidies. Utility firms spent more than $40 million to defeat the measure. The fate of a third high-profile initiative, Proposition 10, which sought a 50-cents-per-pack cigarette surtax, was undecided late into the night.

Proposition 1A, a $9.2-billion school construction and repair bond issue, won handily, but Proposition 8, which called for permanent class size reductions in the primary grades and the creation of a statewide schools inspector, was defeated.

Two measures dealing with animal welfare--Proposition 4, to ban the use of certain kinds of animal traps and poisons, and Proposition 6, to prohibit the sale of horse meat for human consumption, were leading comfortably.

Proposition 7, which would have rewarded diesel pollution cutbacks with tax credits, and Proposition 3, which would have limited the state's presidential primary to party-registered voters, were headed for defeat.

With California voters apparently wanting to cling to blanket primaries, the state's preferences for presidents might instead have to be decided by closed party caucuses or party conventions.

The strong level of voter support for the Indian gaming measure--which would allow the expansion of reservation gambling across California without the state's approval--pleased the tribes' campaign strategists.

"The public has spoken with an overwhelming voice and they're saying, 'Leave the Indians alone,' " said Paul Mandabach, lead consultant to the Yes on 5 campaign.

"Today the people of California have created a true Indian Thanksgiving," added Dan Tucker, a member of the Sycuan tribe in San Diego and president of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn.

Buoyed by the results, leaders of the Agua Caliente tribe in Palm Springs said they would ask Gov. Pete Wilson today to implement the measure, which allows Indians to maintain and expand the kinds of casinos they have been operating for years without the state's blessing.

If Proposition 5 is upheld in court, observers predict that the Palm Springs area--home to four Indian casinos--may ultimately develop as the closest thing California has to a Las Vegas.

Proposition 5 allows slot machines without pull-arms and coin dispensers, but does not allow such classic Nevada trappings as roulette wheels and craps tables.

But the casino measure is expected to face a stiff legal challenge because the state constitution bans "Nevada-style" casinos and because it is unclear whether Wilson can be required, as the state's executive officer, to sign gambling compacts which he opposes.

The battle over Proposition 5--stoked by at least $95 million in campaign contributions--began last spring as a protest against regulations announced by Wilson for the operation of Indian casinos.

While Wilson struck agreements with 11 tribes that included restrictions on the type and number of video gambling machines they could operate, most tribes bristled at the rules. They responded by drafting the ballot measure, casino guidelines written by the tribes themselves and allowing for, among other things, an unrestricted number of machines in each gambling hall.

Proponents of Proposition 5 qualified the gaming initiative for the ballot in record time, using TV and direct mail. By campaign's end, they anted up more than $69 million to win voter approval.

While their message was steeped in such mantras as Indian sovereignty and Indian self-reliance, what also was at stake was money. Lots of money.

The 41 Indian casinos in California generated an estimated $632 million in net profit in 1997--most of it from slot machines operated without the state's blessing.

Opponents of the measure countered that tribal gambling halls should be subject not only to federal regulations--as they already are--but also to state guidelines. But most of the No on 5 campaign funds--about $26 million--came from another group with a large economic interest in the issue: Las Vegas casino operators, apprehensive about losing gamblers to California tribal casinos.

The net result was a blockbuster battle of television commercials. Their effectiveness will long be debated by the experts.

Both sides on Proposition 5 succeeded in debating the issue effectively in 30-second sound bites, said initiative expert Robert M. Stern of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies.

But the Yes on 5 side waged "one of the classic campaigns of all time," Stern said, "because of the sympathy it generated for Indians. Of course, they had the money to do it."

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