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Debate Focuses on Environmental, Workplace Issues

UCLA session touches on impacts of tribal casinos, but frequently strays into emotional outbursts and finger-pointing.

October 21, 1998|HECTOR TOBAR and JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The debate at UCLA over Proposition 5, the Indian gaming initiative, began civilly enough Tuesday, with plenty of agreement on both sides that reservation gambling had helped many a tribe improve its lot.

But how much gaming is enough to guarantee a tribe's self-sufficiency? And if Proposition 5 passes, and Indian gaming becomes an even bigger industry, how much say will non-Native Americans have over crucial issues such as workplace safety and environmental protection?

It didn't take long for these complex questions to be lost in the war of insults that has characterized the final days of the hard-fought campaign over the initiative.

Ken Ramirez of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, a supporter of the initiative, pointed across the dais at attorney Cathy Christian, an initiative opponent.

"Don't be confused," he told the audience. "Look at who we're dealing with. A hit person for the Nevada casinos!"

That comment drew a round of applause from the mostly pro-initiative crowd of about 300 at UCLA's Korn Convocation Hall.

Most observers agree that even if Proposition 5 is approved by the voters, it would almost certainly be subject to a spirited court challenge. Still, a strong yes vote would be a big political boost for the state's Indian gaming industry.

The measure would compel the governor's office to sign "compacts" with the state's Native American tribes, allowing a greater variety and larger number of gaming machines than those allowed now.

"This is not a moral issue; this is about the entertainment industry," said Jerome Levine, an attorney for the California Indian Gaming Assn. "This is about who gets the benefits of that business."

The California tribes that currently operate gaming halls have spent more than $40 million on the Yes on 5 campaign. Nevada casinos are the most generous funders of the No on 5 effort, having spent some $15 million through Sept. 30.

While conceding that, Christian said a broad coalition opposes the measure, including a host of law enforcement officials and labor leaders, who argue that Proposition 5 does not sufficiently protect casino workers.

Maria Elena Durazo of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11 said the initiative is anti-labor. State labor laws do not apply to Indian reservations, which are on federal land.

"Dishwashers and cooks and housekeepers deserve the same kind of respect for their rights," Durazo said.

Levine accused Durazo's union of seeking a "sweetheart deal" with Indian casinos and being a pawn of special interests.

Christian responded with an attack on Ramirez and the San Manuel tribe, saying they had spent $25 million to support Proposition 5, even though the tribe has "just has 25 men, women and children on their reservation."

"My tribe has 163 members," Ramirez said.

Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Tribe, based near Temecula, tried to reclaim the high ground.

"Let's get back to the issue," he said. "Proposition 5 is about self-reliance."

Before Indian gaming, Macarro said, there was 60% unemployment on his reservation and a 60% poverty rate. Now, he said, both rates were "nearly zero."

Of the 104 federally recognized Indian tribes in California, 11 have signed agreements with Gov. Pete Wilson. Those agreements establish a limit of 975 machines at any given casino and limit the number of gambling machines statewide. They also allow only a few, restricted forms of gaming.

Another 31 tribes are operating casinos without state compacts and are fighting a legal battle with federal authorities who threaten to seize their machines. Those tribes were forced into the situation because the governor's office wouldn't negotiate, Levine said.

"Promises were broken and as a result [the tribes] have taken their case to the people," he said.

Outside the debate hall, a sideline skirmish was raging over a No on 5 ad that began airing around the state last week. Supporters of the initiative have asked TV stations to pull the ad, calling it "patently false and defamatory."

In dispute is the ad's suggestion that Proposition 5 would exempt tribes that build casinos from all environmental laws, allowing them to "dump sewage and toxic waste and pollute our air and water."

In fact, the measure would leave tribes exempt only from state and local regulations, not from federal laws.

Steven Glazer, a spokesman for the Yes on 5 campaign, called the ad's claims "garbage" and "flagrant misrepresentations" of the truth.

"Baloney," responded Frank Schubert, manager of the No on 5 campaign. "The whole context for this debate is a state initiative. Voters know we aren't talking about federal law."

So far, only one station, KABC-TV in Los Angeles, has agreed to pull the ad pending a review by lawyers. Arnold J. Kleiner, the station's president and general manager, said "enough doubt has been cast on the spot for us to take it off the air until we can find out that it truly is accurate."

In another development, opponents of the 11 compacts have submitted 750,000 signatures calling for a referendum on the legislation that ratified the agreements.

If the measure qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters, it would invalidate the compacts, which ban video slot machines used on many reservations.

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