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California tribes endorse gaming initiative

After months of staying silent on the issue, California's largest inter-tribal organization has stepped into the debate over the "fair share" their casinos should, or should not, contribute to the state.

The California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which represents 64 tribes with and without casinos, announced on Friday that it unanimously endorsed a ballot initiative that allows tribes to operate an unlimited number of slot machines. In exchange, the tribes would share 8.84 percent of their revenues with the state.

"Indian gaming has proven to be the most successful means of funding tribal governments and the services they provide to tribal members," said CNIGA chairman Anthony Miranda, a member of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians.

CNIGA's backing came after Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, presented the initiative, which his tribe launched, to the organization. Proposition 70 allows willing tribes to operate casinos under a 99-year compact with the state.

The move is a direct challenge to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who campaigned last fall on a pledge to make tribes pay their "fair share" of casinos revenues to the state. Last month, he signed gaming compacts with five tribes that aim to fulfill that promise.

Under the deals, the tribes would be able to offer unlimited slot machines in exchange for financing a $1 billion bond to help bail the state out of its budget hole. The tribes would also share a portion of their slot revenues, which state officials estimate at another $150 to $200 million a year.

"This is a fair deal for the tribes and the state," Schwarzenegger said earlier this month when the compacts were signed into state law.

State officials predicted other tribes would renegotiate their compacts but no new deals have been announced since last month. Instead, tribes with large gaming operations, like the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, came forward and said their proposals were rejected without serious consideration.

"If the governor has no intention of negotiating with us, we would appreciate the courtesy of a definitive response to that effect," Morongo chairman Maurice Lyons said late last month.

By signing the new deals, Schwarzenegger agreed to oppose Proposition 70 and Proposition 68, a rival initiative put forth by the card club and racetrack industry. It would force tribes to share 25 percent of slot revenues with the state or lose their exclusive rights to the machines. Proposition 70, on the other hand, is not mandatory for any tribe.

With the backing of tribes statewide, Proposition 70 is on par with ballot initiatives tribes sponsored in recent years. Both won with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Tribes poured millions into those campaigns and already, the Agua Caliente Band has spent $6 million to gather signatures and promote Proposition 70. CNIGA voted to donate $200,000 to the effort, with other tribal donations expected.

Several tribes have already raised $13 million to fight Proposition 68. Spending for the November could top $100 million, according to some tribal observers.

Schwarzenegger himself is planning to raise $20 million to battle the gaming initiatives. He is even considering accepting donations from tribes even though he criticized rivals, during the campaign last year, for doing so.

CNIGA, as an organization, shied away from the issue as tribes met earlier this year for their winter conference. Miranda was hounded with questions about Schwarzenegger's call but declined to answer, noting that CNIGA had not formed a position.

That view was repeated later as momentum was building towards new compacts. "That really is an issue between the [individual] tribes and the state," Miranda said in an interview in March.

CNIGA has not taken a position, however, on the compacts the five tribes signed. None of those tribes -- Pala Band of Mission Indians, the Pauma Band of Luiseo Indians, the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and the United Auburn Indian Community -- belong to CNIGA. Some withdrew two years ago in a dispute over the direction of the organization.

Only about half of the more than 100 tribes based in California operate casinos. According to the National Indian Gaming Commission, tribes in California and northern Nevada took in $4.7 billion last year, up from $3.7 billion in 2002.

Relevant Links:
California Nations Indian Gaming Association -
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -