Union, tracks seek slots vote
Tribal gambling expansion threatens jobs, doesn't help workers, they say.
By Peter Hecht - Bee Capitol Bureau
Representatives for hotel and casino workers and two leading California horse racing tracks Friday announced a petition drive to force a statewide vote on four major tribal gambling expansions in Southern California.
Officials for the UNITE HERE union and the Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows racetracks filed papers with the state attorney general's office late Friday seeking a Feb. 5 referendum on agreements that would add 17,000 new casino slot machines.
If the groups succeed in gathering 443,971 valid signatures of registered voters by Oct. 10, Californians can count on one of the most expensive and combative ballot fights in recent years.
"We are doing this because the largest single expansion of gambling in American history does not provide appropriate worker rights," said Jack Gribbon, political director for UNITE HERE. "It's clear these compacts just make a small gambling cartel in Southern California rich and do nothing for poor Indian tribes."
The referendum seeks to overturn controversial gambling agreements that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed and the Legislature approved for four tribes: the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.
In a statement Friday, Pechanga tribal Chairman Mark Macarro called the referendum effort "an attack on the people, an attack on the governor and an attack on both houses of the Legislature.
"We will do what it takes to protect our agreement with the state," he added.
Under the agreements, the four tribes can each install between 3,000 and 5,500 new slot machines. They each now operate 2,000 slot machines, earning $200 million to $425 million each, according to 2005 financial reports.
Union activists are furious that the governor and the Legislature didn't require the tribes to accept provisions allowing workers to organize by collecting signed cards instead of holding secret ballot elections. Such language was included in accords signed in 2004 with other gambling tribes.
Meanwhile, racetrack owners have long fumed that burgeoning Indian gambling is severely shrinking their business.
Greg Larson, a spokesman for Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, charged in a statement that the gambling agreements threaten the jobs of 50,000 racetrack workers.
He said the fact that tribes have an exclusive right to operate Nevada-style slot machines has "a negative impact on horse racing" and harms the California industry's ability "to compete with racetracks in other states."
Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the Morongo tribe in Riverside County, said Friday that state coffers would suffer dearly if the gambling agreements were overturned by voters.
"California voters need to know that without these compacts, California's current budget deficit will only grow," he said. "These compacts provide a new source of revenue for critical programs such as health care and the environment."
Schwarzenegger, in signing gambling compacts with five major tribes last year, said the gambling deals could generate $13.4 billion to $22.4 billion in tribal revenue-sharing payments to the state over 25 years.
One of the tribes -- the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in San Bernardino -- is still awaiting approval in the Legislature for its bid to add up to 5,500 new slot machines.
"The governor stands by his compacts. He believes they are good for the state, the tribes and the local communities," the governor's spokeswoman, Sabrina Lockhart, said Friday.
Representatives for other major casino tribes -- including the United Auburn tribe near Sacramento and the Pala tribe in San Diego County -- participated in discussions on the ballot referendum to block the Southern California casino expansions.
But Howard Dickstein, an attorney for the tribes, said Friday they haven't decided on whether to participate or financially support the ballot effort.