Voters decide on Indian gambling expansion

LOS ANGELES - California's Indians hit a ballot-box jackpot Tuesday as voters overwhelmingly decided to double or even triple the number of slot machines in tribal casinos around the state.

With nearly a third of all precincts reporting, 64 percent of voters favored Proposition 1A while 36 percent opposed it - a nearly 2-to-1 margin for the advocates of more slots and Nevada-style card games in the Indian clubs.

Tribal leaders termed voter approval of the constitutional amendment a final step in ratifying deals signed with 57 tribes in 1999. But critics promised to put up more legal roadblocks.

Proposition 29, a related proposal which formally approves 11 tribal-state gambling compacts with much stricter limits reached in 1998, had a 53-47 percent win margin. But Indians said that vote made no difference because 29 is superseded by legislative action that led to 1A's success.

''It's such a relief that we've overcome this final major hurdle,'' said Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band, which has a big casino in Palm Springs.

''There has been talk about other challenges or lawsuits, but for all intents and purposes this is it. We've pretty well laid to rest what we can and cannot do,'' he said.

But Leo McCarthy, a longtime political leader who served two years on a national panel studying gambling, said the vote means a huge expansion of Las Vegas-backed casinos and trouble for many Californians with gambling addictions.

''What's being totally ignored as this massive expansion is approved is the hundreds of thousands of California families that are going to be destroyed,'' said McCarthy, a former Assembly speaker and lieutenant governor.

Under 1A, compacts can be negotiated with any of the current 107 federally recognized tribes in California for slot machines or for house-banked, Nevada-style card games.

Proposition 1A was a follow-up to a 1998 ballot plan that drew strong opposition from neighboring Nevada's casino industry. Proposition 5 was ultimately rejected by the California Supreme Court.

This time around, Nevada casinos put up no organized fight. Instead, several gambling corporations were busy arranging deals with California tribes that would let them cash in on the across-the-border expansion.

Other 1A advocates included Gov. Gray Davis, most state legislators and labor unions.

Opponents included retired minister Harvey Chinn of Sacramento, who put up $2,500 of his church pension to urge a ''no'' vote on Indian casinos. In all, the opponents spent less than $50,000 while the tribes raised more than $22 million for their campaign, including television ads showing Indian leaders surrounded by smiling children and other tribal members.

Some major California newspapers editorialized against the plan, arguing that wide-open, Nevada-style gambling wouldn't be a good thing for anyone and regulation would be inadequate.

Other opponents included some church groups and low-budget organizations such as the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion and Committee on Moral Concerns.

Some California residents living near Indian reservations and non-Indian card clubs and horse racetracks also joined in the criticism.

There was a lot of disagreement on the impact of Proposition 1A because of ambiguous language in the 1999 compacts signed by Davis, who said the number of slot machines at Indian casinos could double to about 44,000 under 1A.

Other estimates put the potential total at more than 100,000 - half that of Nevada casinos. Indian leaders split the difference, saying the slot count could climb to about 65,000.

The California tribal compacts are up for renewal in 2003, when the number of slots could be renegotiated.


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