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California and the West

Legislature Quickly OKs Gaming Ship

Casinos: Bill marks a test for Gov. Davis by expanding Indian gambling to cruises in international waters.

March 17, 2000|DAN MORAIN and TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — An Indian tribe made wealthy by its casino won swift legislative approval Thursday to operate a gambling cruise ship between San Diego and Rosarito Beach in Baja California.

The bill by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton was written specifically to accommodate the Viejas band of Indians in San Diego County, and Viejas' partner in the venture, Commodore Holdings, a cruise ship operator based in Hollywood, Fla.

The bill, approved with almost no public discussion, goes to Gov. Gray Davis for his signature. It marks a test for the Democratic governor, who has said he supports only a modest expansion of gambling on Indian land.

Last week, state voters approved Proposition 1A to legalize gambling on tribal land. The Viejas' proposal amounts to the first foray by a California tribe into gambling off reservation land.

Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean said the governor, who was the main architect of Proposition 1A, has not yet taken a position on the Viejas floating casino measure (SB 228).

McLean said the bill would not permit "expanding gaming in California." However, other state authorities say the Viejas' vessel, called the Enchanted Sun, would be the only floating casino based in California. Davis' predecessor, Gov. Pete Wilson, had blocked attempts to open gambling cruises during his tenure.

State law bans so-called cruises to nowhere in which ships sail into international waters and permit gambling, then return to port. However, such ships can conduct legal gambling in international waters so long as they have a destination outside California. Rosarito Beach is 18 miles by water from San Diego.

The 213-member Viejas band, part of the Capitan Grande Band of Diegueno Mission Indians, already operates one of the largest land-based casinos in the state, with more than 1,000 highly profitable video slot machines.

Under the legislation, the tribe, together with its partners, legally could operate the Enchanted Sun, which has 370 Nevada-style slot machines, 13 card tables, roulette and craps. The gambling could only take place legally in international waters.

Slot machines are illegal outside Indian reservations in California, and state law says gambling ships must lock their slot machines in separate rooms whenever they are in California waters.

That requirement posed a problem for the Viejas. The slots aboard the Enchanted Sun are in a two-deck area covering 7,000 square feet, making it impossible to lock them in a separate room.

The legislation tailored for the Viejas band says ship operators do not have to lock up the machines once they reach state waters. Rather, they may simply render the slots "inoperable" by, for example, unplugging them when the liner is in California water.

Viejas spokeswoman Nikki Symington said the tribe realized it needed the legislation about a month ago when the attorney general's office informed the tribe that the machines needed to be locked whenever the ship was in state waters.

"We couldn't reconstruct the ship," Symington said.

The bill won Assembly passage on a 64-3 vote last Thursday. A Senate committee approved it Wednesday. The bill sailed through the full Senate by a 28-1 margin Thursday. The quick action underscores the gambling tribes' considerable political power.

Altogether, California's gambling tribes have spent about $100 million on state campaigns since 1998, far more than was spent by any other interest in California. Although most of the money went to two ballot measures to legalize Indian casinos, tribes nonetheless have donated millions of additional dollars to candidates and political parties.

The Viejas band alone has given $63,500 to state candidates this year. The Viejas also spent $3 million to win passage of Proposition 1A, the ballot measure approved by voters last Tuesday legalizing gambling on reservation land.

Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico gave the invocation at Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's inauguration last year, burning sage as part of the ceremony. Pico was an influential negotiator last fall when tribal leaders and Davis struck the deal that placed Proposition 1A on the ballot.

"The Indians have bought Sacramento," said Assemblyman Bruce Thompson (R-Fallbrook), one of the Legislature's few gambling foes. "They paid good American dollars for these votes. They can have whatever they want."

Proposition 1A and tribal compacts with Gov. Davis govern gambling on Indian land. The cruise ship, however, requires no state or federal gambling license. State officials will have no authority over the casino once it leaves California waters.

Commodore's filings with federal securities regulators say Commodore controls 50.2% of the Enchanted Sun, and the Viejas have a 49.8% stake. Viejas will operate the casino. Commodore will run the ship. The filings say the ship will be based in San Diego and may stop in Los Angeles.

Commodore describes the Enchanted Sun as a "seagoing resort with a large state-of-the-art casino in place of cabins, so as to permit increased passenger capacity." It can hold 850 passengers.

Jim Fannan, vice president and general manager of Commodore Day Cruises in San Diego, said the ship's maiden voyage is set for April 7. It will make nine round-trip cruises a week. The ship will dock at a new pier being built at the Rosarito Beach Hotel.

"To my knowledge," Fannan said, "this is the first floating Las Vegas-style casino involved with any Indian reservation."

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