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Stakes Are High in Indian Casino Debate

Prop. 5: Profits lift many tribes from poverty, but some neighbors say the gaming centers create problems.


A relatively few years ago, the phrase "Indian prosperity" would have been a classic oxymoron.

Today, however, the adult members of the Table Mountain Rancheria, in the rolling Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Fresno, are handed individual $14,000 profit-sharing checks every month from their 10-year-old casino. Each of the tribe's 30 families has been given $250,000 to build a custom home. And the 40 tribal children receive after-school tutoring from two full-time teachers, with every A on report cards bringing a $1,000 reward. In a single year, a straight-A student can earn $28,000.

"The only downside to our casino," said Table Mountain tribal chairman Vern Castro, "is in debating where to spend the money."

As a November vote nears on hotly contested Proposition 5--the Indian-spawned ballot measure calling for a continuation of existing casino operations--few dispute that gambling is a key to tribal self-sufficiency. In communities near casinos, politicians, police and business leaders--many of whom receive tribal financial gifts--also say the gambling halls are a boon to the local economy.

Opponents of the measure counter that communities will suffer if casinos are allowed to proliferate without state government approval and oversight.

"Some tribal lands are remote and don't impact their neighbors," said Sean Walsh, spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson. "But for others, you have inadequate roads that lead to dangers, not only for neighboring residents, but for casino players; you have a wanton disregard of environmental laws in the state, and you have a population alien to local communities, potentially bringing vices and crime that you don't want your children or family exposed to."

Tribes Divided by Prop. 5

The debate has proved divisive not just among voters, but among some of the tribes that have the most at stake.

In recent months, 11 tribes--including Table Mountain--have signed compacts with the state that limit their operations and gaming equipment, and four of them are actively campaigning against the passage of Proposition 5. They say that even with new state-approved video gaming machines, their casinos will still be successful.

About 80 tribes--including most of the tribes with existing casino operations--support passage of Proposition 5. They say anxiety about Indian casinos that would be allowed under the ballot measure is unwarranted.

Since casinos started to proliferate in the early 1990s, few major problems have surfaced. Indeed, many public officials, particularly in rural areas, say the gambling halls have proved beneficial.

"I see no downside to casinos, whatsoever," said Riverside County Supervisor Jim Venable, whose district includes Indian casinos in Cabazon and near Anza and Hemet. The gaming halls have boosted employment and reduced welfare costs, said Venable, who has received political contributions from various tribes.

San Diego County Supervisor Diane Jacob, whose district includes Indian casinos near El Cajon, Alpine and Lakeside, says the gambling facilities are the largest employers in her rural east county district. Jacob, who has not received political money from the tribes, recently told the National Gambling Impact Study Commission that the casinos "are a major contributor to our economy, recreation and tourism industries."

In the last decade, some tribes have closed casinos for lack of business. But for those that succeed, casino revenue can transform a tribe wallowing in poverty into a wealthy one.

The 100-member Sycuan tribe near El Cajon has used profits from its 700-employee casino to establish a library, day care center, medical clinic and a 60-employee fire department and paramedic service that also responds to county fire calls.

In the far reaches of Northern California, the small Elk Valley tribe in Del Norte County has eliminated 80% tribal unemployment, built a community center and has purchased more than 400 acres of land for economic development.

Federal law requires that casino revenue be spent on tribal government functions--which can range from feeding hungry children to hiring lobbyists, lawyers and advertising agencies, for instance, to promote Proposition 5. Through September, tribes had contributed $42.7 million to the pro-5 campaign.

Casino profits distributed to tribal members range from Table Mountain's $14,000 individual monthly checks to less than $1,000 a month on some reservations with hundreds of tribal members.

Tribes create tremendous goodwill by lavishing donations on local philanthropic causes.

The 240-member Barona tribe in San Diego County, for example, has donated more than $2 million--including $200,000 for the San Diego Symphony summer pops program and 15,000 teddy bears to Children's Hospital in San Diego.

Non-Indians Also Benefit From Casinos

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