Tribes band together to block rival measure

Agua Caliente suit alleges slot machines initiative is deceptive, violates federal law

– The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, sponsors of a state ballot initiative that would give tribes unlimited gaming, have joined five other tribes in trying to block a competing measure by racetracks and card clubs.

The Palm Springs tribe filed suit Wednesday in the 2nd District Court of Appeals, Los Angeles, alleging the rival initiative, which could break tribal monopoly on slot machines, is deceptive and violates federal law.

On Tuesday, five tribes, including the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, filed a similar suit with the state Supreme Court, calling the initiative “a fraud on the electorate.”

“It’s sort of a coincidence that we both ended up doing the same thing,” said Fredric Woocher, a Santa Monica lawyer for the Agua Caliente tribe. “We acted completely independently.”

Four legislative leaders also voiced support for a legal effort to block a proposed ballot initiative that could break tribes’ monopoly on slot machines in California and benefit 16 specific non-Indian gambling operations.

The lawmakers say in a brief filed with the state Supreme Court that the initiative would “confuse voters” and “steal attention, time and money from numerous valid propositions on the same ballot.”

The friend-of-the-court brief, which supports the filing by the five casino-owning tribes, was written on behalf of Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco; Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga; Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, D-Los Angeles; and Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield.

The measure being opposed is sponsored by racetracks and card rooms and has not yet qualified for the November ballot.

It would require that tribes pay state and local governments 25 percent of casino winnings. If they refuse, the initiative allows 11 card clubs and six racetracks to operate slot machines.

The lawsuits contend the measure is designed to ensure the tribes’ refusal. “It’s written in a way completely contrary to federal law,” Woocher said. “This is an outrageously deceptive measure.”

“It won’t provide a dime for state budget relief,” the four top lawmakers said in a statement, also arguing that the measure unconstitutionally includes two separate subjects.

The Agua Caliente initiative would permit tribes to offer all casino games, including craps and roulette, which are illegal under the current law.

It also would allow them to operate as many casinos on their reservations as they choose, with as many slot machines as they choose. In return, tribes would pay the state 8.84 percent of their gaming profits. Currently, they pay nothing.

The Agua Caliente initiative also hasn’t yet qualified for the November ballot. Woocher said Thursday he suspects the lawsuits will be consolidated. “It doesn’t make sense to have them heard separately,” he said.