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63 Tribes, Davis Aide Will Begin Talks on Gambling

Casinos: Indian leaders hope to secure a better deal with the new governor than they did with Wilson.


Representatives of 63 Indian tribes in California that operate--or want to operate--casinos on their reservations will meet today with a representative of Gov. Gray Davis to begin negotiating for state approval of their gambling halls.

The meeting, at the Viejas Indian Reservation east of San Diego, will involve the largest group of tribes seeking casino agreements, called compacts. Representatives of two smaller groups of tribes, consisting of 11 other reservations, met earlier this month with Davis' tribal affairs counsel, retired federal appellate Judge William A. Norris. Spokesmen for that group of tribes and the governor's negotiating team say that the opening talks went well.

The compacts would be unnecessary if there had been no legal challenge to Proposition 5, the Indian gaming initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters in November.

But that measure, in which voters endorsed most forms of gambling on Indian reservations in California, was swiftly challenged as unconstitutional, in part because it forced the governor to accept Indian gambling as defined by the tribes. Oral arguments on the validity of Proposition 5 are scheduled to be presented June 1 before the state Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the tribes are moving ahead to negotiate their own, separate compacts with the state, as is required by federal law.

Successful compact negotiations, tribal attorneys say, will lead to an unprecedented working relationship between sovereign Indian tribes and the state of California that may spill over into other areas of mutual concerns.

State-tribal relations--most recently during former Gov. Pete Wilson's administration--were strained at best, but they are expected to warm under Davis, who in April became the first governor ever to meet with all 104 of California's tribal leaders in one sitting.

"Once this issue [of casino compacts] is resolved, it will provide the momentum to address other issues which have been swept under the table for 150 years," said Sacramento attorney Howard Dickstein, who represents several tribes. "Compacts are a huge--and the first--issue, but they will pave the way for cooperative relations where interaction between the state and tribal agencies will be unprecedented."

Wilson had negotiated compacts with several tribes in 1998, but they were viewed by most of California's tribes as overly restrictive and quickly became the stimulus for Proposition 5.

The election of Democrat Davis, who received more than $750,000 in gubernatorial campaign contributions from Indian tribes, has given hope to casino advocates that they can directly negotiate agreements with conditions far more favorable than those offered by Wilson.

"Our focus is to negotiate a compact that preserves Proposition 5 and maintains faith with the voters," said Mark Macarro, who served as the television spokesman last year for the successful Yes on 5 effort, the most costly initiative campaign in American history.

Macarro, now spokesman for the largest of the three groups of tribes seeking compacts, said the Indians' biggest bargaining chip is the voters' support of Proposition 5, "which we regard as, at the minimum, a moral mandate."

It is unlikely, however, that Davis will approve compacts that wholly encompass the provisions of the gambling initiative, some tribal representatives acknowledge.

Proposition 5, for instance, allowed for the virtually unlimited expansion of casinos on existing Indian reservations, and Davis has told the tribes he will not endorse unlimited gaming growth in California.

"How the issue of expansion will play out in negotiations remains to be seen," Macarro said Wednesday.

Proposition 5 allows video, coinless slot machines and card games, but not such classic Nevada-style gambling as craps, roulette and the traditional slot machines that take and dispense coins.

Federal law only allows Indians to offer gambling to the degree already allowed by the state, and only after state-tribal casino-operating agreements, the so-called compacts, have been approved by both sides.

But some California tribes, expanding on their high-stakes bingo halls, have introduced other forms of gambling--notably video slot machines--over the past 10 years without state approval, prompting a series of lawsuits and threatened enforcement actions to shut them down.

Serving as the chief negotiator for the largest Indian group is Mickey Kantor, who under President Clinton was the U.S. trade representative from 1992-96 and Commerce secretary from 1996-97.

The compact talks are expected to be completed in June--before the legal resolution of Proposition 5--and then be forwarded to the state Legislature for consideration.

"There's an incentive on everybody's part to put this issue to rest," lawyer Dickstein said. "This isn't something the governor wants to focus his administration on."

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