Not that long ago, Indian tribes were widely viewed with
sympathy by most Americans, given the long history of federal
mistreatment of them and endemic poverty on reservations.
They also have been perceived as a people uniquely in touch
with the non-material, spiritual things in life.
People will argue whether that image is real or Hollywood
buncombe. But few would disagree that these days the tribes'
image doesn't exactly fly with the eagle, thanks largely to
the political clout they wield because of their immense gambling
Think less about dancing with wolves and more about waltzing
with any number of California politicians, such as Lt. Gov.
Cruz Bustamante, who was ordered to return millions of dollars
in illegally contributed Indian gaming and other money for
his ill-fated run in the gubernatorial recall.
Now, a battle of gaming initiatives is shaping up for the
November ballot, pitting the non-Indian owners of 16 card
clubs against Indian gaming interests. Both proposals, which
are pending signature verification, reflect the worst aspect
of the initiative process - the ability of wealthy participants
to craft self-serving measures that wouldn't have a prayer
in the Legislature.
Yet I get a chuckle out of the first one, the Fair Share
for California Initiative. It is designed to exploit the distaste
many Californians rightly feel toward Indian-gaming political
power. Ask most legislators in Sacramento (off the record,
of course) and they will tell you three interest groups rule
the Capitol: public employee unions, trial lawyers and Indian
gaming interests. The once-ignored Indian tribes have made
it into the top three, a testament to the power of money.
I met with Leo Chu, owner of card clubs in Inglewood and
Compton, and Haig Kelegian, owner of clubs in Oceanside, Commerce
and Bell Gardens. The two men crafted the Fair Share initiative
out of frustration with the special privileges the Indian
casinos maintain through their political power.
Chu and Kelegian tell a troubling story of hardball politics.
The Indian casinos have been able to largely shut out the
competition by getting tax and other privileges for themselves.
They've been able to keep the card clubs from offering the
games of chance the casinos offer.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been trying to force Indian
casino owners to pitch in to clean up the California state
budget mess. The tribes claim they are separate nations, so
they shouldn't have to pay state taxes. I'm never for higher
taxes, but if they are separate nations, then they should
follow the laws that forbid foreign nations from contributing
dollars to American political races.
One of the bills the tribes had tried to push through last
year would have given them veto power over development projects
near their tribal boundaries. If a developer was proposing
new housing or shopping on private land near a reservation,
the tribal council could reject it because it interfered with
one of their "sacred" sites.
Tribes also are engaged in reservation shopping - seeking
sites in non-reservation areas that can be developed as casinos,
and could compete with existing card clubs. Last summer, the
high desert city of Hesperia gave approval to the Timbisha
Shoshone tribe of Death Valley Indians to build a casino in
the city - not exactly a reservation. City officials view
it as economic development.
Recent news stories detail the bitter disputes within some
reservations, as tribal councils expel large numbers of Indians
from their tribe. Those being removed argue that the sole
reason is to boost the gambling revenues for those who remain
in the tribe, given that such revenues are distributed among
tribal members. The victims claim there is no fair legal process
by which they can assert their rights.
This is a story of greed, political power and a lack of accountability.
So I understand what Chu and Kelegian are doing, even though
their initiative is cynical. Here's what it will do, according
to the summary of the Secretary of State's Office:
"Authorizes governor to renegotiate tribal-state compacts
to require that tribes: pay 25 percent of slot machine/gambling
device revenues to government fund; comply with multiple state
laws; accept state court jurisdiction. Unless all compacted
tribes accept terms within 90 days, or if terms determined
unlawful, authorizes 16 specified non-tribal racetracks and
gambling establishments to operate 30,000 slot machines/gaming
devices, paying 33 percent of revenues to fund public safety,
regulatory, social programs."
The card-club owners are betting - the odds are overwhelmingly
in their favor - that the tribes will not agree to the 25
percent levy or the other conditions, and so the "non-tribal
... gaming establishments" - can you say card clubs - will
be allowed to operate slot machines. This initiative is about
giving the clubs additional advantages. Note also that the
initiative limits its advantages to existing clubs, thus shutting
out new competition.
To gain public support, the initiative promises proceeds
to the ever-popular public safety programs, even though public
safety unions are right up there with Indian casinos in terms
of a self-serving special interest that's eating up the treasury.
For their part, Indian tribes are responding with an even-more
shameless initiative of their own that would, in essence,
grant existing Indian gaming interests 99-year protected monopoly
status for their casinos. The tribes would agree to pay a
meager 8.9 percent tax on their profits. If both initiatives
pass, the one with the highest vote count would go into effect.
The Coalition of Indian Gaming Tribes, which is actively
opposing the card-club initiative, has a Web site filled with
information about the evils of gambling. Did you know that
gambling increases crime and traffic and stretches thin law
It's utterly shameless, but entertaining in a way. What's
happening, clearly, are two groups using the political process
to carve out more favorable financial standing for their gambling
enterprises. The truth won't get in the way of this play for
I don't begrudge the Indians their newfound wealth. And I
don't begrudge the card-club owners trying to secure a level
playing field. I have been flummoxed, however, by the sheer
size of the gambling industry in California. Who wants to
drive to Temecula or Compton to sit in a glorified Holiday
Inn and throw their hard-earned money down the hopper? Apparently
hundreds of thousands of Californians. P.T. Barnum was right.
As a libertarian I'm supposed to celebrate this garbage.
Actually, as a libertarian all I need to do is tolerate it.
What I can't tolerate, however, is the close link between
gambling dollars and government privileges. Both initiatives
only make that situation worse, so both deserve to be rejected
overwhelmingly by the California electorate.