The following was printed 9-15-99. But if you read today's Star you would know that the City Council in Camarillo knows how to do it. A formal objection to the State AND the Feds. Without the objection to Gov. Davis before May 15 the tribe can lay claim to the land. Why does the Council of Camarillo know what the Oxnard Council doesn't? Watch my interview on Adelphia Cable. Ross is a fine fellow, prolific writer and world famous raconteur, but he shouldn't interrupt his guest.




Dan Walters

Peter Schrag

Daniel Weintraub


U.S. Voices

Opinions from George Will, William F. Buckley and more

For Davis, the trail of tears ends at a slot machine

By Peter Schrag

(Published Sept. 15, 1999)

Guilt serves all sorts of purposes in American politics -- some of them entirely admirable -- but rarely, if ever, has it been the monstrous fig leaf for political venality that it was in last week's sellout to the Indian gambling casinos.

By now the outlines of that sellout are pretty clear. With only a handful of exceptions, virtually every politician under the Capitol dome, from Gov. Gray Davis down, joined the stampede to approve the largest expansion of slot machine gambling in state history. That's significant enough all by itself, but it's likely to open the doors even wider in the coming years as other interests come to the trough for their share of the action.

All told, Indian casino interests ponied up some $9.2 million for California pols in the last election, often in $100,000 chunks, a sum that puts them ahead of all the other special interests in the great Capitol honey pot. And given their success, who can doubt that a lot of other gamblers of heretofore relatively modest pretensions -- the card rooms, the racetracks -- will now bring a lot more chips to this welcoming table?

The deal comes barely three weeks after the state Supreme Court declared Proposition 5, the Indian gambling initiative that the voters passed last fall, to be unconstitutional. The deal consists of two parts -- the compact that Davis signed with 58 Indian tribes, and a proposed constitutional amendment overturning the high court's decision. It zipped through both houses of the Legislature with nary a dissent.

If the amendment is approved by California voters in the March primary, the number of slots on Indian reservations could more than double -- to 43,000 -- in the years ahead, each of them generating between $100 and $300 a day. That's more than one machine for every one of the 32,000 members of the state's 107 officially recognized Indian tribes.

The Indian gamblers would no doubt have tried to run their own ballot measure, one that might have left even more latitude for wide-open casino operations -- one tribe still may do so anyway -- but this is a case so fraught with hazards that the state's leaders should have resisted, not collaborated.

The topper in this shameful deal, of course, is Davis himself, who collected $900,000 from the tribes and who, with his ability to influence future gambling policy, stands to collect a lot more. But this, said Davis, was just a matter of fairness; campaign contributions never influence his decisions. "For too long," he said at the great compact signing last week, "California Indians have been deprived of the respect they deserve. That sad chapter in our history ends today." The trail of tears ends at a slot machine.

Probably no one will ever be able to fully separate the all-too-justified guilt in this story from the great gush of cash that's made the Indians into the political force they've become. But it's surely inconceivable that what happened last week could have occurred without that money.

Nor could it have occurred without the misbegotten policy process that set the stage for it: the 1984 lottery initiative that was floated in the guise of a school funding measure by a signature-petition firm looking for business in the early 1980s; the $2.3 million from Scientific Games of Atlanta, the manufacturers of the tickets and other lottery paraphernalia that put it on the ballot and funded the campaign; the federal law that permits gambling on reservations to the extent that it's permitted elsewhere in the same state; the success last year of the casino gamblers, spending $67 million, an all-time record, in persuading voters that they were just a bunch of poor Indians.

The original rationale for Proposition 5 was that it permitted only the kind of games that the constitution, as amended by the lottery initiative, already allowed with its lottery-related games. It was that contention that the state Supreme Court rejected when it overturned Proposition 5, which was a statutory initiative, not a constitutional amendment.

But if the ballot measure that the Legislature so quickly approved last week does pass in March, what California will have written into the constitution is precisely the reverse: We will have opened the doors to games and gambling devices that are permitted nowhere else in California. That will open -- indeed, already has opened -- the door to demands from off-reservation gambling operations for equal treatment. And on this slippery slope, there seems to be no way back up the hill.

In this age of mutant morality, when our Puritanical indignation is fastened on more politically correct culprits, the real issue is not the evil of gambling. Nor does it lie only in the danger to families, especially low-income families, and to the larger community from the addiction it produces and reinforces. It lies also in the corrosive effect, as was blatantly apparent last week, on the political process itself.

Voters supported Proposition 5 last fall, but they didn't ask for it. It was sold to them. When legislators fell all over themselves to expand the lucrative games and devices that are reaping such nice profits for their Indian clients they were not doing the will of the people, but of the interests.

Maybe the most bizarre part of this deal is the one under which the Indians are to pay $100 million out of their proceeds to a state fund to fight gambling addiction and help alleviate local costs. It does not say how much of that is to go to those who are now the most addicted, the politicians themselves. Once upon a time, the white man scourged the Indians with smallpox and booze. Now, with the help of our leaders, it's payback time.

PETER SCHRAG's column appears in The Bee on Wednesday. He can be reached by fax at 321-1996; or by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA, 95852-0779.