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Baca to Back Casino Plan

A proposed initiative targeting tribes' slot machine monopoly could fund services.

November 26, 2003|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, backed by gambling interests and possibly major public employee unions, will be a main proponent of an initiative aimed at breaking Indian tribes' monopoly on Nevada-style gambling in California, consultants on the measure said Tuesday.

At the same time, the chairman of a tribe that owns a large casino near San Bernardino raised the possibility that his band would not oppose the initiative.

The proposal, which is expected to be filed with the California attorney general today as a first step toward placing it on the November 2004 ballot, would earmark as much as $1 billion from gambling profits for police, firefighting and education, particularly for troubled children and those in foster care.

Law enforcement would split 35% of the $1 billion, while 15% would go to fire departments statewide and 50% would go to county offices of education to assist children in foster care, says a summary obtained by The Times.

According to the summary, the initiative would give tribes that own casinos 90 days to renegotiate their rights to gambling operations with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the tribes would have to agree to pay the state a fourth of their net gambling revenue.

If they refused, five racetracks in California -- Los Alamitos, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows -- would be allowed to operate a total of 15,000 slot machines. Eleven card rooms, including seven in Los Angeles and Orange counties, would receive the authority to run another 15,000 slot machines.

Under current California law, slot machines are permitted only on Indian lands -- a privilege tribes won in agreements with former Gov. Gray Davis that were ratified by voters in 2000.

Baca was traveling Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. But he will be one of the official proponents of the initiative, said Los Angeles County Undersheriff William T. Stonich, who added that the measure won Baca's endorsement because of the money it would generate.

"It is a necessity with the budget crisis," said Stonich, the second-in-command at the Sheriff's Department.

He dismissed contentions by some gambling critics that casinos lead to more crime, saying that budget cuts in recent years have hurt law enforcement.

"The reduction of law enforcement can in fact lend itself to increasing crime," he said. "Gambling is a legitimate business in the state of California. People of California have endorsed that."

Backers of the measure are hoping that money for an array of government programs will attract other endorsements. Major public employee unions are contemplating embracing the measure, in part because it would direct payments to county programs aimed at helping children.

"We are pretty impressed with the way that the initiative targets funds to the neediest people in California -- the foster children who are in a system that is in dire straits," said Annelle Grajeda, general manager of Service Employees International Union, Local 660, which represents Los Angeles County workers.

She said the union will consider whether to endorse the measure when the group meets next month.

The California Teachers Assn., which represents 300,000 public school teachers, also is contemplating whether to back the proposed initiative.

"The idea of taking 50% of that money and giving it to county offices of education for abused and neglected [children] is certainly a good place," said Becky Zoglman, spokeswoman for the union.

When Davis negotiated the compacts with the tribes, he did not ask them to make payments to the state. Instead, the tribes pay into funds to aid other tribes that have no casinos, and to help local government in areas affected by casinos. Those payments total about $130 million annually.

But facing budget deficits this year, Davis sought $1.8 billion in annual payments from the tribes, a sum later reduced to $680 million. The tribes balked.

Schwarzenegger also is calling on tribes to make annual payments to the state, although he has not set a dollar figure.

Although the governor is not supporting or opposing the initiative, at least two leading consultants preparing the measure were integral to his winning gubernatorial campaign: George Gorton and Don Sipple.

The initiative would establish a fund to be administered by five appointees of the governor. In addition to the money for police, firefighting and education, $1.2 million would go to tribes that have no casinos, and $3 million would be used to combat problem gambling.

Corporations that own the tracks and card rooms will probably be the major financial backers of the initiative campaign. Gorton would not say how much backers might spend on the measure, but noted: "We believe we will spend whatever we need to spend to win."

Deron Marquez, chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, said the backers appear willing to "step on every compact ever created" to win the right to operate profitable slot machines. The tribe runs a casino with 2,000 slot machines at the edge of San Bernardino.

But Marquez said that under tribes' existing deals with the state, they would no longer be required to make their current annual payments to the funds if their monopoly over casino gambling was eliminated.

Any loss of business because of the increased competition could be offset by no longer having to pay that money, Marquez said, noting that his tribe might "call it a day" and not fund opposition to the initiative.

"We will have to look at the math," he said.

Tribes spent $65 million in 1998 to win passage of an initiative to legalize gambling on reservations, but the state Supreme Court struck it down. The tribes later spent $25 million to win passage of Proposition 1-A in 2000.

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