Tribes ask high court to toss out slots initiative

Casino-owning Indian tribes asked the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to block as unconstitutional a ballot initiative that could break California tribes’ monopoly on slot machines.

The five tribes say the initiative violates the state Constitution by deceptively combining “disparate subjects” and specifically benefiting “a small, identified group of private businesses,” namely five racetracks and 11 card rooms.

Under the initiative, which has not yet qualified for the November ballot, those non-Indian operations would be allowed to have up to 30,000 slot machines overall if tribes that operate casinos don’t pay one-fourth of their earnings to the state.

The tribes, joined in a group called First Californians for Self Reliance, argue in a petition filed with the Supreme Court that the ballot measure “amounts to a fraud on the electorate” and that its promises of more money for the state “are just clever marketing, designed to attract unwary voters.”

The petition says the revenue-sharing proposed in the initiative would break tribes’ compacts with the state and is “clearly designed to fail.” It argues the measure would essentially grant the 16 qualifying card rooms and racetracks in six counties a monopoly over non-Indian slots. Ballot measures may not specifically benefit such specific private operations, the tribes said.

Supporters of the measure submitted more than 1 million signatures to the Secretary of State last week, said initiative spokeswoman Shelly Sullivan. The number of signatures has not yet been verified, one of the final steps before any measure qualifies for the ballot.

Sullivan criticized the tribes’ court filing and claims made by its supporters.

“Recent history has proven that the gaming tribes are willing to say and do anything that would help them avoid paying their fair share,” Sullivan said. “We believe that the initiative is solidly written and will stand up to court review.”

Maurice Lyons, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and head of the anti-initiative group, said the proposed measure “does nothing for the (state’s) budget crunch.”

Backers of the “Gaming Revenue Act of 2004” include racetracks Hollywood Park in Inglewood and Bay Meadows in San Mateo, and card rooms such as Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens and magazine publisher Larry Flynt’s Hustler Casino in Gardena.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas officially support the measure because the card rooms and racetracks would provide roughly $1 billion a year of their take to local law enforcement, firefighters and education programs.

In addition to the Morongo Band, the casino-owning tribes fighting the initiative are the Pala Band of Luiseno Mission Indians, Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, United Auburn Indian Community and Viejas Band of Mission Indians.

Those named as respondents to the court filing are elections officials who approved collection of signatures for the initiative petition. They include Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, Los Angeles County Registrar Conny McCormack and San Francisco Elections Director John Arntz.