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Cloud of Secrecy Over Casinos

October 01, 2000

The most disturbing aspect of expanding Indian casino gambling in California is not whether the casinos have 45,000 Nevada-style slot machines or perhaps as many as 113,000. That is indeed a matter of concern, considering Gov. Gray Davis' promise that the gambling compacts with more than 50 tribes will allow only a modest increase in gambling in the state. But just as troubling is the fact that there seems to be no way to know just how many slot machines have been approved for use in the casinos.

Davis signed the pacts in the fall of 1999, and they went into effect last March with voter approval of Proposition 1-A. Now in dispute is just what the compacts authorize. Davis said they would allow for a maximum 45,206 slots. The legislative analyst's office said the figure could run as high as 113,000, although no other source seems to support that figure. Each compact allows a tribe to operate as many as 2,000 slot machines. A number of tribes are building major casinos with the assistance of established gambling businesses like those in Nevada.

Tribal gaming authorities met three times last spring and summer to conduct a confidential drawing for unallocated machines. In August, the tribes delivered a $34-million check to the attorney general's office. There was no explanation of the purpose, although officials assume it mostly consisted of the one-time $1,250 fee that the tribes pay for each slot machine.

To this day, state officials cannot or will not say how many new slots have been authorized. Even if they have the information, the officials may be precluded from making it public due to confidentiality clauses in the tribal compacts. Tribal reports to the state Gaming Commission are exempt from the public records disclosure law.

The state limited its regulation of Indian gambling, and its take of the receipts, out of respect for tribal sovereignty. But the general public interest is at stake here as well. Other states faced the same sovereignty issues but imposed much tougher restrictions. Californians should at least be allowed to know the amount of casino gambling in the state and how well it is being regulated. The tribes have become the most lucrative single source of campaign funds in California. Officials need to make periodic public reports on casino gambling, and the Legislature should fully exercise its oversight responsibility.

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