Thursday, August 30, 2007

California Indian Wars: Pechanga

California Indian wars
Signature gathering for a referendum to cancel state compacts to expand tribal gambling meets opposition from four of the richest Indian casino owners in the state.

“I have seen ... near fisticuffs as people argue over these things,” Mike Arno, a consultant with a labor union representing hotel workers and a racetrack company, told the Aug. 28 Los Angeles Times. Arno referred to a political fight that might be played out in shopping centers across California in the next few months. The union, Unite Here, and the Bay Meadows Land Company have joined forces in a petition drive to qualify four ballot initiatives that would allow state voters to decide whether to cancel compacts signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and four casino-owning Indian tribes last year. The compacts would allow the tribes to add 17,000 slot machines to their existing 8,000 in return for paying 15% to 25% of their additional profits to the state.
The benefitting tribes are the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla (which owns casinos in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage), the Pechanga band of the LuiseƱo near Temecula, the Morongo band of Mission Indians (with a casino near Banning), and the Sycuan band of the Kumeyaay near El Cajon. The state legislature approved the compacts last month; they await approval by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Bay Meadows Land Company says the compacts have hurt business at its racetracks, Hollywood Park in Inglewood and a track near San Francisco.

Unite Here says the compacts did not include desired collective bargaining terms, like those in earlier compacts. Two Indian tribes – the United Auburn Indian Community, which owns a thriving casino near Sacramento, and the Pala band of Mission Indians, with a casino near the Pechanga operation – have together kicked in $1 million to help the referendum effort. (According to the July 28 San Diego Union-Tribune, ten years ago the Pechanga tribe financed a referendum opposing a state compact with Pala.) To save their compacts, the four tribes have begun a campaign to block referendum signature gatherers. Workers for the tribes urge people not to sign the referendum petition, or if they have signed it, to sign a form asking that their names be removed from the petition. State law allows voters to revoke their signatures from referendum petitions by filing a written request with elections officials before the signatures are turned in.

The four tribes’ apprehension may arise from what may be a change in public opinion toward Indian gambling casinos. “People have soured on the political influence of the tribes, their internal infighting, and they want to limit the proliferation of gambling,” Cheryl Schmit with the gambling watchdog group, Stand Up California, told the Union-Tribune. Bill Bengen of Dehesa Valley says his group, Residents Against Gambling Expansion, will support the ballot referendum against the Sycuan band. Bengen said Californians supported Indian gambling as a way to help tribes overcome poverty – and some have “done that grandly.” Other tribes, however, are still poor. Many El Cajon citizens oppose the Sycuan compact because it would allow the tribe to build a second casino at a former golf club owned by the tribe.

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