Area casino growth contested


Last updated 12/6/2007 at Noon

A signature-gathering drive has placed Temecula at ground zero in a February 5 election that could help shape the future of Indian gaming statewide.

A gaming agreement between the state and Temecula’s Pechanga tribe is one of four being challenged at the ballot box. Passage of Proposition 94 would prevent the Pechanga tribe from more than tripling its number of slot machines. Voter approval of similar measures would limit gaming for two other Riverside County tribes, Morongo and Agua Caliente, as well as San Diego County’s Sycuan tribe.

Despite an advertising blitz, the tribes failed to defuse an aggressive push to collect about 2.8 million signatures statewide. The blasts, mostly delivered by television, have steadily intensified since the measures qualified for the ballot last week. And even though polls show a majority of Californians favor the expansions, Pechanga and the other targeted tribes are not taking a single vote for granted.

“We will continue to wage a vigorous campaign to protect the agreement,” Mark Macarro, Pechanga tribal chairman, said in a written statement a week ago.

Casino foes question a massive gaming expansion and its potential impact on roads and communities. Pechanga and the other tribes say local and state services will suffer if crucial revenues are limited.

“This [measure] isn’t so much a setback for Pechanga as it is for the people of California and the important programs that won’t be funded as a result of the obstructionist referenda backers,” Macarro continued in the statement. “Already California has lost $200 million in new revenues for the coming year.”

The measures seek to overturn gambling agreements or “compacts” negotiated by Gov. Schwarzenegger. The Pechanga pact would allow the Temecula tribe to operate up to 7,500 slot machines, a sharp increase from the 2,000 machines currently allowed.

Pechanga leaders have downplayed the potential impacts from such an expansion. A leader of the tribe’s development board said at an Oct. 2 workshop that the ongoing construction of a golf course is the only expansion envisioned anytime soon at the sprawling complex that opened in temporary buildings a dozen years ago.

The targeted tribes plan to fight the four ballot measures as a group rather than individually. They have formed a support group – the Coalition to Protect California’s Budget and Economy – that draws upon firefighters, educators and law enforcement leaders. Their advertisements cite the importance of expanded gaming revenues as the state budget deficit grows amid a housing crunch and weak job growth.

But a costly campaign to woo voters might backfire this time, said Cheryl Schmit, founder of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California.

“I think the more money they spend the more toxic it [the campaign] becomes,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I think you’ll see a voter backlash.”

Besides traffic and other casino-related impacts, voters question whether gaming tribes share enough revenue with those that do not operate casinos, Schmit said. She said voters also question government programs that aid wealthy tribes such as Pechanga and Sycuan.

“It does raise concerns,” she said. “It starts to gripe everybody.”

Schmit noted that the Pechanga Fire Department received a $128,541 grant in September from a nationwide grant program operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That grant followed a $63,465 award that the tribe received from the same program in June 2003, according to FEMA records.

Earlier this month, according to media reports, the Sycuan tribe received a firefighting helicopter from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Federal officials defend the grants by saying they are open to all qualified applicants and the government cannot screen whether the potential recipients are wealthy communities or Indian tribes. Firefighting experts examine tens of thousands of applications and recommend how to award the grants, which totaled more than $16 million nationwide this year.

“It’s an incredibly effective way to handle a grant program,” Thomas Olshanski, a spokesman for FEMA’s fire administration program, said in a recent telephone interview.

But unlike the other ballot measures, the Pechanga initiative pits a pair of local competitors – the Pechanga and Pala tribes – against each other.

The ballot measures were submitted to the state by Jack Gribbon of the casino workers union UNITE HERE.

In addition to the employees union, the Bay Meadows Land Co. racing group and the Pala Band and United Auburn Indian Community of Placer County are aligned against the targeted compacts. Foes of the pacts spent nearly $6 million to collect the signatures needed to put the four measures before voters statewide.

Besides being competitors for gaming, restaurant and show customers that travel Interstate 15, Pala and Pechanga have crossed political swords before. The tribes’ casinos are about nine miles apart at opposite ends of Pala-Temecula Road and improvements at Pala’s facility have mirrored those of their northern competitor.

About a decade ago, Pechanga was one of many tribes that opposed a gaming agreement that Pala had struck with the state. At that time, Pechanga leaders claimed Pala’s compact granted too many concessions to state negotiators.

The furor over Pala’s compact faded after California voters in 1998 passed Proposition 5, which authorized Las Vegas-style gambling in the state. Later invalidated by the California Supreme Court, that ballot measure was replaced two years later by Proposition 1A. That measure, which was passed by nearly 65 percent of voters statewide, set the current slot machine limits.


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