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Gambling, Untethered

January 06, 2002

Almost without notice, gambling is becoming a huge and minimally regulated business in California. Indian casino building and expansion account for most of the increase, but a new law that eases betting on horse races adds to the total. If gambling interests get their way, there could be an initiative on the November ballot allowing just about anyone to open a casino. State politicians, whose campaign coffers are heavily fed by gambling businesses, need to develop the gumption to demand a slowdown. Unfortunately, since the tribal compacts will be subject to renegotiation in early 2003, the tribes will contribute millions to this year's election campaigns.

The number of slot machines whirring and clinking in the 46 casinos operated by California Indian tribes has soared from fewer than 19,000 two years ago to at least 40,883 now, a rate of increase indicating that the reach of Nevada-style gambling will be broader than Gov. Gray Davis estimated when he signed the original gambling compacts with 61 tribes.

One of the problems with Indian gambling in California is lack of information. How many customers are visiting the mostly rural casinos, how much are they gambling, how much are they winning and losing? The tribes have consented to minimal state regulation, such as licensing of casino employees, but generally decline to release financial information. They argue that tribal sovereignty limits what they have to divulge. But secrecy can hide potential consumer rip-offs and poor management.

Several attempts are underway to establish tribal casinos in urban areas despite Davis' declared opposition. California voters in 2000 overwhelmingly gave the state's tribes authority to operate casinos. Most voters, however, believed that the casinos would be restricted to existing tribal lands. They did not envision the complicated land swaps that are putting casinos ever closer to city limits.

If all that isn't enough gambling expansion, there's a new law that allows horse race fans to place bets from their homes, by telephone or Internet, on races both in California and elsewhere. Everyone can be a bookie! The bill was pushed by California race tracks and signed into law by Davis.

Meanwhile, an organization called the DeVille Group says it is conducting a $2-million petition drive to put an initiative on the statewide ballot to allow full-on Nevada-style casinos anywhere in California. The group, which lists a Palm Springs address, is headed by a former politician from Maine and a spokesman in Palm Springs. Not much disclosure is required at the start of the ballot petition process, but the proposal's backers clearly want more casinos with less regulation in California cities. Californians who don't favor nearly unlimited casino gambling across the state should refuse to sign the petition. Some issues don't deserve to make it to a vote.

Gambling has become very big business in California and threatens to become much bigger. Davis and the Legislature should tell us where they plan to draw the line.

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