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DECISION '98 / THE FINAL COUNT

Tribes Behind Prop. 5 Seek State Recognition of Casinos

Initiatives: They give pacts to Wilson, who is unlikely to sign them. Meanwhile, cigarette surtax is still up in the air.

November 05, 1998|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Buoyed by a landslide election victory, California's gaming tribes wasted no time Wednesday demanding formal state recognition of their casinos--and opponents of Proposition 5 just as swiftly announced plans to challenge the legality of the high-profile gaming initiative.

Meanwhile, Proposition 10--the 50-cents-a-pack cigarette surtax--remained too close to call Wednesday. The measure was ahead by about 13,000 votes, but more than 700,000 absentee ballots from across the state remained uncounted.

At 9 a.m. sharp, the tribal chairman of the Agua Caliente tribe of Palm Springs showed up at Gov. Pete Wilson's office with a casino agreement in hand, as provided for under Proposition 5, for the governor to sign. Two dozen more tribes forwarded similar proposed compacts to the governor.

Wilson, a staunch opponent of the measure, is virtually certain not to sign the pact, which calls for the continued operation of casinos with no limit on the number of electronic gaming machines.

But Gov.-elect Gray Davis on Wednesday said he would implement Proposition 5 unless ordered not to do so by the courts.

Jack Gribbon, vice president of the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO, announced in Sacramento that his group and others will file lawsuits against the measure on the grounds that it violates the state Constitution and federal law.

"Labor will lead the fight to challenge Prop. 5, because it's bad for workers," he said. "The tribes spent a record amount to preserve a special deal that keeps their tribal casinos exempt from taxes, exempt from outside oversight and exempt from regulations, including . . . those that protect workers."

He said the 15,000 non-Native Americans employed by Indian casinos were denied any avenue under Proposition 5 for enforcing the minimum wage, collective bargaining or workers' compensation rights.

In all, $69 million was raised by a few wealthy tribes to promote the measure, which would allow the expansion of Indian gambling on reservations across California without state approval.

Broad Support Base

Results of exit polling conducted Tuesday by the Los Angeles Times Poll showed that support for Proposition 5 was strong among most categories of voter, with majority support from Democrats, independents, all major ethnic groups and both sexes. Only Republicans opposed the measure, with the strongest opposition found among conservative Republicans. Moderate Republicans were slightly in favor of the initiative.

The poll, involving 3,693 voters across the state and with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points, found that 71% of union members supported the initiative.

Among the issues to be addressed in a court challenge is the constitutionality of a requirement that the governor sign casino agreements within 30 days without further negotiation on his part.

Some constitutional law experts contend that the governor, as the state's chief executive, cannot be forced by voters to enter into contracts against his will.

Another problem may arise, some experts say, because the state Constitution bans "Nevada-style" casinos. But because it does not define the parameters of such a casino, judges may have to resolve whether an Indian gambling hall filled with slot-type video devices--but not with other such Las Vegas staples as roulette wheels and craps tables--is considered Nevada-style.

Given Wilson's opposition to their casinos, some tribal leaders say they may bide their time until Davis takes office.

The governor-elect said Wednesday: "Elected officials have to honor and respect the law. . . . I don't have any intention of challenging the will of the people.

"Others may, but I am going to implement the law until the courts tell me it is not the law."

Davis received $319,000 in political contributions from California Indian tribes that run casinos before this year's primary election, then stopped accepting such donations in July.

Attorney Howard Dickstein said the five tribes he represents "have requested Gov.-elect Davis to follow through on his commitment to negotiate new compacts very early in his administration."

Dickstein's clients previously signed somewhat restrictive compacts with Wilson.

Judges would probably allow existing casinos to remain open while the issue played out in court--a prospect that could take years, legal experts say.

Until Tuesday, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles was prepared, with court order in hand, to close a handful of Inland Empire casinos after Dec. 4 because they lacked compacts with the state, as is required by federal law.

"It's not clear what effect, if any, Prop. 5 will have on that court order," said Richard Drooyan, chief assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.

Although both sides in the Proposition 5 debate reacted swiftly Wednesday to the measure's passage, supporters and opponents of Proposition 10--the cigarette surtax measure--may have to wait days to learn its outcome. Each side remained optimistic.

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