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Legislator Pushing Gaming Initiative

Jim Battin, flush with tribal donations, is using his office to promote Indian gambling.

March 24, 2004|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A state senator who has received $1.3 million in campaign money from Indian tribes that own casinos is using his position to promote a ballot initiative that would permit unlimited expansion of tribal gambling.

Using his legislative stationery, Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta) has written to 2 million Californians, urging that they sign a petition to place the initiative on the November ballot.

The message promises that the initiative would require that tribes pay "their fair share" of gambling profits to the state, and would protect voters' towns from "Las Vegas-style gambling" because it would "ban new casinos which are not on Indian reservations."

Current state and federal laws restrict Nevada-style gambling to tribal lands. But a competing initiative proposed for November would break tribes' monopoly on Las Vegas-style betting by authorizing 30,000 slot machines at five horse tracks and 11 card rooms, mostly in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.

"In the future," says a Battin letter mailed to Westside residents, "you even could find Santa Monica threatened with big Las Vegas-style casinos!"

Tribes with casinos have given Battin's campaign committees $1.3 million since 1998, making him one of the Legislature's largest beneficiaries of tribal money during the past five or so years. Since 2000, tribes with gambling operations have accounted for 43% of his campaign money, state records show.

The Agua Caliente Band of Mission Indians, owner of two large casinos in the Palm Springs area, is sponsoring the initiative that Battin is touting. The tribe, which has donated at least $363,080 to Battin since 1998, is pursuing expansion plans that include one or more additional casinos in the center of the desert city.

Letterhead Not Unusual

Battin said in an interview Tuesday that the use of his letterhead was not unusual: "That is political mail. That stuff goes out in every political campaign, either for races or initiatives. It doesn't matter. It is perfectly legal to do, perfectly legitimate to do."

The tribes' donations did not influence his decision to sign the letter, Battin said: "I'm real clear on Indian gaming. I believe Indian gaming has been very beneficial to my district, to my constituency, to the economy of Riverside County and to the economy of the state of California."

No law prohibits legislators from using letterheads to promote their undertakings, as long as the mailings are not done at public expense.

A notation at the bottom of the letter says it was not printed at taxpayers' expense. The final line of the letter says, in fine print, that the Agua Caliente tribe is funding the initiative.

Still, Battin's undertaking was criticized as an ethical breach.

"Any time a politician is so reliant on a single source of campaign funds, there are going to be questions," said John Pitney Jr., a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and a Republican. "In politics, as in investing, it is probably more prudent to have a diversified portfolio."

Former Assembly Speaker and Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, a Democrat and a critic of expanded gambling, said, "Elected officials are expected to show some discretion when using their offices for dubious causes like this initiative."

McCarthy, founder of the Center for Public Service and Common Good at the University of San Francisco, said Battin "perhaps should begin to understand the difference between working for the people of California and working for casinos."

The proposed initiative would grant tribes a 99-year compact guaranteeing them the right to expand their casinos as they see fit on Indian land. In exchange, tribes would pay the equivalent of the corporate profits tax rate to the state -- 8.84% of net profits.

Tribes now pay about $130 million a year into two state funds, most of it earmarked for tribes that have small casinos or no gambling operations. Agreements negotiated by former Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 limit individual tribes to two casinos, and cap the number of slot machines at 2,000 per tribe.

Battin's letter arrived in an envelope that featured a picture of the state Capitol, declares "Official State Document Enclosed," and exhorts recipients with the words, "Immediate Response Required."

"This proposition will get our state a fair share of revenue from Indian casinos, and protect against ever having casinos except in Indian reservations," the letter says. It adds that tribes would pay "hundreds of millions of badly needed dollars" to an array of state programs such as "schools, affordable health care, emergency services, seniors -- and to reduce the pressure for tax increases."

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