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Tribe may fight term-limits measure if casino expansion rejected 4-26-07

By AARON C. DAVIS
SACRAMENTO (AP)
- One of California's richest Indian tribes has signaled it will spend millions of dollars to kill a February ballot measure that would extend lawmakers' terms if they fail to pass a sweeping expansion of Indian casino gambling, a key lawmaker said.

The threat, which a spokesman for the tribe disputes, illustrates just how influential gambling tribes have become in California politics.

It also brings into focus what may be the hammer behind an unprecedented $20 million lobbying effort started this week by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which operates a casino on its reservation west of Palm Springs.

The 1,000-member tribe stands to win the rights to 5,500 new slot machines - enough to fill more than two Las Vegas-sized casinos - under a compact negotiated with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It was one of five compacts Schwarzenegger negotiated with wealthy Southern California tribes, allowing them to install as many as 22,500 additional slot machines and offer card tables and other casino games. In exchange, California would get a share of the annual revenue, although the amount is in dispute.

The Senate approved the deals earlier this month, sending them to the Assembly, where their fate is uncertain. Assembly Democrats have close ties to labor unions, which oppose the compacts because they do not allow casino workers to unionize.

Without Assembly approval, the compacts cannot take effect.

On Monday, the Morongo tribe launched a barrage of television commercials, mailings and automated calls targeting constituents of Assembly members who will either vote on the casino expansion or who have previously sided against tribes.

The commercials tell voters their lawmakers are “missing a crucial opportunity” to use new casino tax revenue to pay for classrooms and other needed state services.

“It's a bully tactic,” said Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, chairman of the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, who has vowed to scrutinize the deals and likely delay hearings on them until after next year's budget is resolved.

Such a delay also harms the governor, who is relying on the additional casino revenue to deliver on his promise to close the state's chronic deficit in the budget year beginning in July.

Torrico said the Morongo tribe's campaign has gone further than targeting certain Assembly districts.

Behind the scenes, the tribe's efforts have raised the possibility that it will continue its campaign into next year and fight the term-limits modification initiative that is headed for the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot, he said.

“They're sending that signal. That's been the rumor ... we've heard that a big chunk of this is to fight term limits,” Torrico told The Associated Press.

“They've already targeted (Assembly) members; that's nothing new,” Torrico said. “Now, they're saying they are willing to set aside $20 million, and if you're saying that, you're saying you're willing to set aside millions more in February.”

Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the Morongos, said any suggestion that the tribe is looking beyond its compact vote in the Assembly is false.

He said the tribe's campaign is designed to inform voters about the hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax revenue and other benefits that would be generated by casino expansion.

“The main focus for Morongo right now is ratification of the compact, period. There have been no discussions about anything else,” Dorinson said. “Any suggestion that the tribe is using this effort for any purpose other than ratifying the compacts is just not accurate.”

Regardless, Torrico said lawmakers are taking all threats seriously. He said he is supported by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, and said Assembly members will not be bullied.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said lawmakers must take the aggressive campaign by the Morongo tribe seriously.

“It would tick a lot of people off, and they know that, but the Indians are not bluffing,” Stern said. “This is a real threat. The tribes have unparalleled resources, and a targeted campaign against term limits would probably sink term limits. If they spend $20 million, or even $10 million, that could be it.”

The term limits measure technically cuts the number of years a lawmaker can serve in the Capitol from 14 to 12. But it allows them to spend all that time in one house, eliminating a constant - and costly - game of legislative musical chairs.

The state's current lame-duck legislators would benefit most from the law's modification because they would be allowed to extend their terms in their current seats. Nunez, for example, could extend his reign as Assembly speaker for another six years, instead of being termed out next year.

Some political analysts and lawmakers said they don't believe the Morongo tribe will face off with the Legislature over the term-limits measure. A loss for the initiative also would knock out lawmakers who are friends that the tribes have cultivated for years.

One is Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland. He helped guide the gambling compacts' passage in that chamber and stands to gain four more years in office with passage of the ballot measure.

Whether Morongo extends its efforts into February, analysts say the tribe's $20 million lobbying effort to attack lawmakers before a vote is unprecedented.

Morongo's plan rivals the $23.6 million telephone giant AT&T spent last year to influence legislation giving the company access to California's cable television market. AT&T's efforts, however, were almost exclusively centered on statewide television commercials and contributions to gain lawmakers' favor.

The amount of money Morongo is prepared to spend also is on par with a larger ballot-measure fight.

The $20 million the tribe has set aside for the effort dwarfs the $1.1 million it spent on all midterm elections in the state last year. It would equal the amount the tribe has spent since 2004 on all political efforts in California. That includes the $8.5 million it spent in 2004 to support a ballot measure that would have allowed unlimited gambling in exchange for a flat tax on casino profits.

“Clearly, the amount of money they're talking - it's hardball,” Stern said. “But it's also a small investment compared to what they stand to gain.”

The expansion could bring in billions of dollars to the Morongos over the life of the contracts, experts say.

Dorinson said the Morongo's efforts, which other tribes have not yet joined, is within bounds.

“There's some basic fundamental rights in America such as free speech and the right to petition the government, and this campaign is based on those rights. We are using it to inform the public,” he said.

Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up for California, which is lobbying against casino expansion, sees it differently.

“It's the tribe using their checkbook politics to influence the policies that they want,” she said. “We're not talking about poor tribes any more.”

Tribal gambling in California has evolved into a $7 billion-a-year industry.

Last fall, the Assembly rejected one of the deals - for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians - after labor unions charged that it would undercut workers' rights. Those unions also oppose many of this year's compacts.

Torrico has promised no action on the casino agreements until he conducts lengthy hearings on potential impacts to workers and on fiscal provisions that appear to limit the state's ability to audit the tribes' slot machine winnings.

At a minimum, the Assembly Democrats' efforts appear poised to bog down the tribes' bills at least until June, after Schwarzenegger has submitted his revised budget proposal.

Torrico said the casino bills do not have enough votes to make it out of his committee and might be so flawed that they may never win approval from the full Assembly.

But he said the governor could step in and help negotiate fixes that would make the compacts more palatable to skeptical lawmakers.

“It's ironic that the tribes that had so much good will ... for being bullied in the past, are now going to bully us,” Torrico said.
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