Fate of non-gaming tribes affected by Feb. 5 vote on compacts

POINT ARENA — Few of Mendocino County’s Manchester-Point Arena Band of Pomo Indians understand the raging debate that might decide their future.

But there’s one thing they do know: It’s all about money, and they probably won’t see any of it.

“It’s more money to the state of California, more money to their projects,” said tribal vice chair Rick Laiwa as he pointed out another house with cracked windowpanes and mold covering the bedroom walls. “Our roads are falling apart, and they are getting more money for their highways. These Indian gaming propositions are making it look like we’ve got to dig California out of the hole. That’s funny.”

About 400 Manchester-Point Arena Indians live on two plots of hilly land along the rugged Northern California coast. Their 500 acres — dotted with trailers and wind-battered wood houses — are separated by the Garcia River, which floods part of the year. The closest hospital is an hour and a half away and the biggest city, Santa Rosa, is a 2½-hour drive along Highway 1’s winding roads. Few jobs exist in this isolated coastal region besides grocery clerks or cattle farmers, and the nongaming tribe relies heavily on outside funds.

Laiwa fears his 1,000-member tribe will lose the $1.1 million it receives annually from gaming tribes if voters agree to back Propositions 94 to 97 on Feb. 5. The measures would allow four Southern California tribes to expand their casinos, add up to 17,000 slot machines, and steer more of the revenue to the state.

The Manchester-Point Arena Indians are caught in the fracas among gaming tribes with growing political clout in Sacramento, casino owners who fear competition, and a state government scrambling for even small chunks of extra money. Laiwa, who spends the week working construction in Redwood City three hours south, does not see his people represented on the slick television ads both the Yes and No sides have aired relentlessly in recent weeks.

Neither does Jeanne Logan, a 67-year-old grandmother who lives on the reservation with her family. “Big people are pushing money around,” she said. “They get everything, and we get nothing.”

Even the $1.1 million annual allotment barely covers expenses. The tribe has a community center but no employment training or after-school programs. It has relocated several families from dilapidated homes that no longer meet building codes. But Laiwa figures it will be several months before there is money to rebuild them. In the meantime, these families live in makeshift apartments on another part of the reservation.

“For (the gaming tribes) to even say they are giving housing and new schools, that’s a crock,” he said.  “How’s it going to get better if we lose money?”

The tribe worries that gaming revenues once set aside for it would go directly to the state’s general fund if the measures are passed.  But proponents say tribes like Laiwa’s would actually benefit from this arrangement because the state would ensure that the special revenue trust fund remains stabilized.

“It’s guaranteed for the first time ever,” said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Coalition to Protect California’s Budget and Economy, the “Yes” side that includes the Pechanga, Morongo, Sycuan and Agua Caliente gaming tribes involved in the deal.

“Before, there was the potential for shortfalls, but now the government code is very specific. If there is an insufficient amount in the trust fund, then the state will direct money to make sure there are enough resources for each tribe to get $1.1 million.”

But Laiwa and Nelson Pinola, the Manchester-Point Arena tribal chair, don’t know whether they can trust the state. When gaming tribes signed compacts with California in 1999, they agreed to pay $198 million in revenues to the 71 nongaming tribes through a revenue-sharing trust fund. But there was never enough, says Pinola, so gaming tribes started taking from a special distribution fund — originally set up for litigation, traffic and police fees — as a backfill. The new agreements would mean excess revenues go to the state’s general fund instead of the special distribution fund.

“The four big tribes and the state say they would take revenues back out to pay the trust fund, but we don’t believe there is legal language within the law that allows that to happen,” said Pinola. “As a result, small tribes like mine will be affected.”

The issue has divided California’s 108 tribes who traditionally avoid taking public stands against one another. At least 30 tribes who make up the California National Gaming Association have agreed to support these measures. But most of these tribes have existing casinos and are and therefore ineligible for the fund.

Gaming or nongaming, these intertribal tensions are no else’s business, said Wanda Balderama, the former tribal chair of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians. About 400 members live an hour’s drive inland from Point Arena and have more than 500 slot machines in their casino. Hopland has not taken an official position on the issue.

“I don’t believe voters should have any say,” said Balderama. “It’s a tribe’s right to conduct their own business. We are our own government and should be treated as such instead of being put on the ballot.”

But California voters, including teacher and firefighter unions, have gotten involved in the debate because the deal would pump much-needed funds back into the state’s budget. The four gaming tribes would pay California 15 to 25 percent of their net revenue from the new machines.  

The legislative analyst’s office estimates that the state would get $200 million annually over the next few years and in the “low- to mid-hundreds of millions” each year after that until the compacts expire in 2030. The governor signed the agreements last year, but the “No” side, labeling itself No on the Unfair Gambling Deals and led by two other gaming tribes, two racetrack owners and a hotel workers union, got enough signatures to place the measures on the Feb. 5 ballot.

For the Logan family, which has lived here for six generations, the outcome next week is almost irrelevant.

“People are confused and people are tired,” said Mary Logan as she grilled carne asada and nibbled homemade tortillas for a birthday celebration.  Logan, 40, has been looking for a job for several months, and the $330 she receives monthly from the trust fund doesn’t go far in providing for four children.

“Why even get involved?” she asked. “It’s not going to change. We can’t even get out of the rut we’re in.”

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