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Tribes Granted More Slot Licenses

Gambling: Casinos may now operate up to 51,300 machines, even as confusion over state regulations reigns.


The state Gambling Control Commission this week authorized another 2,753 slot machines at Indian casinos, while leaving unresolved a highly contentious debate over the number of gaming devices permitted under state law.

Ever since a torturously worded gaming compact was signed between the state and California tribes, there has been wide disagreement over the maximum number of slot machines allowed by the measure. Gov. Gray Davis' office has given a figure of 45,000, the state legislative analyst's office said 113,000, and some tribes have argued for still more.

Since gambling profits are at stake, the arguments are intense and tediously detailed. About the only thing universally conceded is that the compact's language will keep attorneys busy.

"It's a real quagmire," said gambling commission Chairman John Hensley. "It's a document free for interpretation and has many conflicts."

Consider the wording of section (a)(1): "The maximum number of machines that all compact tribes in the aggregate may license pursuant to this section shall be a sum equal to 350 multiplied by the number of non-compact tribes as of Sept. 1, 1999, plus the difference between 350 and the lesser number authorized under Section 4.3.1."

A recent commission staff report termed the section "sufficiently obscure" that it will probably take renegotiation of the compacts--scheduled for next March--to clear up the confusion.

In the meantime, Hensley said, "There are so many arguments out there we felt we have to go where we felt the safest."

Meeting in Los Angeles, the commission decided it could issue another 2,753 slot licenses to Indian casinos.

That will bring to about 51,300 the number of tribal slot licenses available--although not all licenses have been used. Of the 62 tribes that have a gaming compact with the state, 46 are actually operating casinos, with a total of about 41,000 slot machines.

Gaming on tribal lands has long been stuck in a legal thicket.

The state Supreme Court voided a 1998 measure allowing gambling on tribal land, concluding it violated a state constitutional provision barring Nevada-style gambling in California.

That ruling in 1999 prompted Davis to negotiate a deal with tribes placing Proposition 1A on the March 2000 ballot. There was little opposition to the initiative, which the tribes spent more than $21 million promoting. It passed by a hefty margin, amending the state Constitution to allow tribes to run Nevada-style casinos on reservations.

In addition to disputes over the maximum number of slots permitted, there is disagreement over whether the state even has the right to issue the licenses.

"The commission has no authority under ... tribal-state compacts to assume control over the allocation and issuance of gaming device licenses," Bernard Simons, an attorney for the Aqua Caliente tribe, wrote to the commission last week.

In an interview Friday, Hensley emphasized the need to untangle the gaming compact. "This language should really be clarified as soon as possible, which is March of 2003."

Tribal attorney Howard Dickstein of Sacramento said he was encouraged by the commission's action. "This is a show of good faith and of independence from the governor. Those are good signs."

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