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Get a Handle on Casinos

November 04, 2002

Indian casino gambling generates a huge amount of cash, but it also has opened the door to a host of new problems for California, including controversy throughout the state over the uncontrolled effects of casino construction and expansion on local communities.

In 2000, Indian tribes gained the right through a voter-approved ballot initiative to operate Las Vegas-style blackjack and poker tables, as well as thousands of new slot machines on tribal lands throughout California. The casino operators claim that tribal sovereignty makes them immune from state and local laws and rules. In their view, that means they don't have to pay taxes and observe regulations like other businesses in the state, although larger casinos do pay some fees. It's a murky legal area that needs to be clarified in the courts. The next governor should use his power to negotiate new casino compacts to give state and local governments more authority over the casinos.

In the meantime, the deal that Yolo County officials negotiated with the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians last month over expansion of its gambling casino is the best any local government has done. The Rumsey Band runs the Cache Creek casino, with 1,130 slot machines and blackjack and poker tables, in Yolo County's bucolic Capay Valley about 50 miles west of Sacramento. Fearing competition from other tribal casinos, the tribe proposed to triple the size of the casino and build a six-story hotel and a 4,900-space garage. Area residents, echoing statewide complaints about expansion of casinos, protested that the project would cause environmental damage and clog roads. The Wintuns tried to be good neighbors. They cut the casino expansion by about a third. There will be a hotel of four stories, not six. But the casino can expand again after 2008.

The tribal compacts negotiated with Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 say tribes must make a good-faith effort "to incorporate the policies and purposes" of environmental laws "consistent with the tribe's governmental interests." Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer says he has no authority to enforce the 62 existing tribal compacts, leaving it up to the tribes themselves and a state commission with questionable powers. The state should have a vigorous enforcement agency.

The next governor has the power to seek more state and local control over casinos when the tribal compacts automatically come up for renegotiation early next year. He should clear up ambiguities and limit further extension of casino gambling. Davis promised there would be no major expansion of gambling, but there are now 50 tribal casinos in the state pulling in roughly $5 billion a year in slot machine revenue alone. That's only a guess, because, believe it or not, the tribes say they don't have to report how much money they make -- another flaw that needs to be fixed in the new compact talks.

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