Thursday, October 11, 2007

Pechanga Sues to Keep Californians from Voting

The Pechanga Band of Mission Indians and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, two tribes that are the target of proposed ballot initiatives to limit casino gambling, filed lawsuits Wednesday to block the referenda

The lawsuits allege that the backers of the initiatives did not have signatures supporting the measures certified on time by the state.

Pechanga, Morongo and two other tribes signed new agreements with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allowing them to increase the number of slot machines in their casinos.

Scott Macdonald, a spokesman for the No on the Unfair Gambling Deals campaign, which opposes the tribal deals and is funded by racetrack owners and competing tribes, said the campaign submitted about 700,000 signatures for each of the referenda by Monday, the last day of the state's 90-day deadline.

However, the tribes say in their lawsuits that proponents of the referenda missed the deadline because the signatures should have been turned in and certified by the secretary of state on Monday.

"We believe the (state) Constitution is crystal clear," said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Coalition to Protect California's Budget and Economy, which supports the tribal deals. Those "pushing the referenda to cancel the state's Indian gaming agreements had 90 days to collect, submit and have the signatures they paid for verified and certified by the secretary of state. They did not, therefore the referenda are invalid."

Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said her office operates under a 1998 court ruling that said signatures submitted to the state before the 90-day deadline can be counted. The time it takes the state to verify the signatures does not count against the 90-day clock, she said.

"The current and three prior secretaries of state have followed the same process since that ruling from the bench," Winger said.

The 1998 ruling was issued in a case involving the Agua Caliente Band of Mission Indians, which was seeking to qualify an initiative. The Agua Caliente band, which owns two casinos near Palm Springs, is one of the four tribes targeted by the referenda.

Macdonald called the lawsuits "frivolous."

"This misguided and ill-fated lawsuit is just another example of how desperate the big four tribes are to keep California voters from having their say on these unfair gambling deals," he said.

Salazar said the legal question over what must be completed in the 90-day signature period has not been settled.

"The question has never been fully examined," he said. "In the case (that opponents of the agreements) are referring to, the judge didn't even put the ruling in writing. We believe the language in the Constitution is clear, and that the court's ruling will be in our favor."

The four tribes have said that their agreements, also called compacts, would generate more than $9 billion over the next two decades for the state.

A nonpartisan analyst for the state Legislature said the tribes' estimates on how much the state is likely to get from the agreements appear to be unrealistic.

The compacts will allow the four tribes to add 17,000 slot machines to their casinos, a 30 percent increase in the number of slots currently operating statewide.

Macdonald and other opponents of the four compacts say the four tribes would create some of the largest casinos in the country to the detriment of racetracks, smaller American Indian casinos, local communities and workers.

Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro said the agreements would benefit everyone.

"As we have said before, we will do what it takes to protect these important agreements, which will provide billions for California, protect the environment, local communities, patrons and workers," Macarro said.

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