The most expensive proposition fight in California history doesn’t just include more than $100 million in political donations and financial projections that differ by billions of dollars. It also features expensive meals, ill-advised statements, the Sacramento Kings, Justin Timberlake and the Wiggles.
With a week and a half to go before California voters decide on four gaming compacts that would allow 17,000 new slot machines, the two sides are exchanging body blows as each tries to show the other has been using gaming money to influence legislators.
The Yes side — The Coalition to Protect California’s Budget & Economy — has tried to ding the compact opponents for hypocrisy.
Last week, the main group working against the compact, Californians Against the Unfair Deals, launched a new series of television ads claiming the deals would mainly benefit four of the richest gaming tribes in the state while doing little for the state’s poor, non-gaming tribes.
Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Coalition, pointed out that the actual Indians in the No ad included Vice Chairman Leroy Miranda and several other members of the Pala Band of Mission Indians. The tribe has a casino north of San Diego with nearly 2,300 slot machines and has given $6.5 million to the No side.
“We have to be very aggressive about countering some of the information they have been putting out,” Salazar said. “They’ve been making up stuff out of whole cloth.”
The Coalition has also pointed to the $4.3 million in opposition money that can be traced to gaming interest owned by Terry Fancher. Fancher owns the Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park horse racing tracks. The Yes side has been circulating comments that Fancher made last year in front of the state’s Horse Racing Board saying he hadn’t “gotten his money’s worth” from political donations when a vote didn’t go his way.
Salazar said Fancher’s companies have made more than $11 million in political donations since the beginning of 2004. Bay Meadows also reported a $625 dinner last March for Assemblywomen Karen Bass, Patty Berg and Julia Brownley, along with a pair of consultants.
But compact opponent Cheryl Schmit of the group Stand Up for California said that this money was “very minimal by comparison” to what the Yes side was spending.
“These tribes have been on a single-minded mission to expand their gambling operations, and to that they’ve needed massive political clout,” Schmit said.
She pointed to huge amounts of political donations by the four tribes with pending compacts. According to state filings, since the beginning of 2000, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians has made $38 million in political donations in California. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has donated $22.8 million, while the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians has put in $18.5 million.
On Friday, Californians Against will release a report detailing some of the spending by these tribes. Among them, these three tribes and the fourth compact tribe, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, have given $55 million to pass the compacts.
They have also fed or entertained at least 52 of California’s 120 legislators, as shown in documents publicly available on the secretary of state’s Web site. For instance, the Pechanga tribe provided Sacramento Kings basketball tickets worth $89.50 each to Assemblymembers Joel Anderson, Bonnie Garcia, Lloyd Levine and Cameron Smyth, along with numerous staffers. Last March, the tribe provided NCAA tournament tickets to Sen. Gil Cedillo, Assemblyman Joe Coto and several staffers.
Last January, the tribe bought dinner, at $141.62 a head, at Morton’s Steakhouse for GOP Senators Jeff Denham, Dennis Hollingsworth and Mark Wyland, Assemblyman George Plescia and Board of Equalization Member Bill Leonard. Perhaps most incongruous were tickets given to Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa to a concert by the Wiggles, a musical group from Australia with colorful outfits and upbeat tunes that caters to children. Several staffers got tickets to Arco Arena events including Disney on Ice and a Justin Timberlake concert.
“The real irony is that 125 years ago we were almost eliminated by the State, largely because our voice was not heard,” said Pechanga chairman Mark Macarro. Now that we exercise this fundamental right, a few choose to criticize us. We of course abide by all state and federal reporting requirements, just like all the rest who entertain.”
“The reams of data from the secretary of state show how the big four tribes spread their vast gambling profits far and wide in Sacramento,” said Dana Wise, a research analyst with the union group UNITE HERE who has been tracking spending by the Yes side. “No part of the Legislature was left untouched.”
Lobbying tabs have also been high on both sides. The two gaming tribes providing much of the money to oppose the compacts, Pala and the United Auburn Indian Community, spent nearly $50,000 during the first three quarters of 2007. They say the “big four” tribes on the other side spent $2 million on lobbying last year between them, as shown in secretary of state filings.
The big money cuts both ways, Salazar said. Auburn and Pala are both members of the California Tribal Business Alliance, which he characterized as a powerful group that keeps top-flight lobbying and legal teams on hand. The Business Alliance is also a major donor, he noted. Its IE PAC has given $880,000 in state donations since mid-2006. The group’s Candidate PAC gave $170,000. Its Issues PAC gave $159,000 to Californians Against Reservation Shopping for a successful effort to oppose a casino measure in Glenn County in 2006.
Salazar also notes that the group sponsors one of the biggest parties in Sacramento each year, the annual Back-to-Session Bash at Mason’s restaurant. It features a VIP room and usually attracts dozens of legislators (disclosure: Capitol Weekly is a co-sponsor of the party).
In the last three months of 2007, the Yes side spent more than $21 million on television advertising hoping to get voters to approve the compacts. The No side waited longer, but it is believed to have spent several million on their recent commercials.
Both sides have a great deal of incentive to take the airwaves. A Dec. 27 Field Poll found likely voters favoring the compacts 39 percent to 33 percent against. The Yes side’s advantage is tempered by the 28 percent of voters who are undecided.
“We believe there is a larger story to tell, that these big four tribes have invested millions of dollars to obtain these sweetheart deals,” said Shelly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Californians Against. “From political contributions to Wiggles tickets, they have been laying the groundwork to get these compacts approved.”
Again, Salazar took issue. He noted that Auburn is opposing other tribes’ “Vegas-type expansion” at the same time they are trying to expand their own casino operations by adding a 654-room hotel, 5,000-car parking garage, 3,000-seat area, a poker room and 1,200 employees. The difference, he noted, was no mention of the new slot machines the tribe will also be able to add.
He went on to call the new compacts “the best deal the state has gotten,” with more environmental and labor guarantees and higher payouts to the state. By focusing on the money, he said, opponents are trying to distract voters from the actual content of the deals. Salazar also said the opponents were working hard to make voters believe the compacts were the product of some kind of se
cret backroom deal.
“All of this stuff was negotiated out in public in the legislature,” Salazar said.