22 Republicans petition feds not to limit gaming machines

Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, and 21 other Republican legislators have sent a letter to the National Indian Gaming Commission asking it not to impose new rules on gaming machines they say are unnecessary and “harmful to tribes.”

Battin said the intent of the letter was to impose fairness and consistency in gaming rights. Anti-casino activists counter that failure to create the rules could result in a large increase in gambling in the state.

The Feb. 29 letter was addressed to NIGC chairman Phil Hogen and two commissioners. For the past several months, the NIGC has been looking at new regulations that would draw a “bright line” between Class II and Class III gaming machines. Class II machines mimic games like bingo and poker. They don’t face the same restrictions as traditional Class III slot machines.

The letter refers to this distinction as “an arbitrary, extra-legal interpretation of current law.” The letter asks the NIGC to “permit the tribes to use the newest and most sophisticated technology available” and warns that the “practical result of such unwarranted regulatory restrictions will be harmful to Californians.”

This is the second time the NIGC has tried to put these regulations in place, Battin noted. The NIGC put the comment out for public comment late year, and the deadline was later extended into this month.

“Congress never intended the commission to have the authority that Chairman Hogen is proposing,” Battin said. He added: “He asked for comment, and I commented.”

The letter was also prompted by the constantly changing rules imposed on tribes who are seeking gaming, Battin said. The tribes who originally signed compacts in 1999 got fairly restrictive deals, he said. In 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave deals with the potential for unlimited slots to four tribes — including the United Auburn Indian Community and Pala Band of Mission Indians.

Those tribes then turned around and spent a combined $16 million opposing compacts for the so-called “Big 4” tribes who won referenda last month. Those tribes got yet another deal. Battin said he hopes to take some of the politics out of the process. Last month, he submitted a bill, SB1201, that would allow tribes that have fewer than 2,000 slot machines to expand without renegotiating their compacts.

Anti-casino activists say the Class II/ Class III distinction as it exists now constitutes a loophole that could be used to create major gaming expansion, because Class II machines don’t face the same limits that are written into many gaming compacts for Class III machines. They also argue that the current classifications system has become out of date as Class II machines have become flashier and more sophisticated.

“The NIGC calls them ‘facsimile slot machines,’” said Jim Marino, the attorney who obtained the letter. “All you need is Class II machines that are basically like slot machines, and then can have unlimited numbers and not pay the state anything.”

He pointed to numerous donations to California politicians, including several to those signed on to the letter. “Here is yet another example of how massive campaign contributions from Indian casino tribes have bought off our elected officials,” Marino added. “Why would 22 California legislators send a letter opposing this rule change to the NIGC at the 11th hour when it is clearly in the best interest of the state of California to implement this rule change?”

Others say that if the NIGC fails to impose the rules, the state will lose what little control it still has over gaming.

“California’s long-standing position is that gaming is an unfavored industry, which means the state must intensely regulate it,” said Cheryl Schmit of Stand Up for California, a group that was heavily involved in opposing the “Big 4” gaming compacts that voters approved in February. “Battin should explain why he doesn’t believe the state and the feds should regulate gambling.”

Battin said he is merely doing what his constituents want by supporting one of his region’s most vibrant industries. He noted that the percentage of Yes votes on the four gaming compacts last month were up to 10 points higher in and around his district than elsewhere in the state. He attributed this to the jobs and wealth brought in by the several casinos in the area.

“I represent the heart of Indian gaming in California and probably in the United States,” Battin said. “If I was from the Central Valley, I’d probably be real strong pro-ag, and people wouldn’t be surprised that I was supporting farmers.”

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