The “Big 4” gaming tribes footed much of the bill for a GOP slate mailer that went out ahead of the Feb. 5 election. While the gaming tribes have been more associated with working with Democrats and California’s “post-partisan” governor, some say cooperation with the GOP could be a sign of things to come.

The four tribes with compacts before voters in that election poured in $6.6 million to the California Republican Party in January. This includes five donations directly from the main group created to support the compacts, the Coalition to Protect California’s Budget, for a total of $5.9 million. The balance came from the tribes and committees around inidividual compacts.

California GOP spokesman Hector Barajas and Patrick Dorinson, a consultant to the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, confirmed that this money went for slate mailers sent to 5 million Republican voters leading up to the election. The two-sided mailers were marked “Paid for by the California Republican Party” and urged voters to approve four gaming compacts, Proposition 94 through 97.

They also urged them to reject Proposition 92, the community college funding, and Proposition 93, the term limits change. The text of one mailer called  93 “a Democrat-sponsored sham” and included allegations about improper spending and investigations of the two Democratic leaders who would have been able to stay longer in office, Speaker Fabian Núñez (Los Angeles) and Senate leader Don Perata, D-Oakland.

Conventional wisdom has generally held that as they have grown in political power, tribes have been most interested in seeking the favors of majority Democrats. But Barajas said this was an oversimplification: “We’ve got a lot of tribes that have long been supportive of our party.”

Tony Quinn, a longtime political consultant who is a Republican, said the deal fit the needs of both. The GOP has been having trouble raising money, while the tribes wanted to convince Republican voters who might have been skeptical of the compacts. The deal “paid off handsomely” for both sides, Quinn said, with the tribes emerging “significantly strengthened” after getting some impressive vote totals in Republican counties.

But Dorinson, a former Republican Party spokesman, noted this wasn’t simply a case of the tribes buying their way onto a mailer. For one thing, he said, the state Republican Party had officially endorsed the gaming compacts.

“New revenues and no new taxes?” Dorinson said. “I think that resonates with a lot of Republican voters.”

He also noted that almost all the counties where the compacts lost were in the Bay Area — a region with almost no casinos. In Southern California, Dorinson claimed, where many of the casinos are located, people have generally been supportive of expanded gaming.

“I don’t think you can say this is the magic bullet that did it,” Dorinson said.

Indeed, the compacts passed with 59 percent or more of the vote in many traditionally Republican counties in Southern California, including San Diego and Orange. These areas were also heavily targeted in the television advertising blitz that preceded the vote.

Last week, Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, submitted SB1201, a bill that would allow gaming tribes with fewer than 2,000 slot machines to add more machines without renegotiating new compacts. Battin has received tribal money, including $25,000 in 2006 from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, one of the “Big 4” tribes, to his legal defense fund relating to a Fair Political Practices Commission complaint from several years ago. However, SB1201 would benefit smaller gaming tribes, not the Big 4. It is likely to garner the opposition of labor groups and, more importantly from a veto perspective, the governor, who would essentially be giving away his prerogative to negotiate with many tribes.

The growing influence of the tribal gaming industry has some worried about a GOP/tribes coalition working against unions and Democrats. Labor rights, environmental concerns and local mitigation have been repeatedly bulldozed in casino negotiations, said Roy Ulrich, an attorney who serves on the board of California Common Cause.

“Local governments have very little influence anymore,” Ulrich said. “There is money being spent by local governments to mitigate the effects of the casinos, but local governments aren’t getting any money from these compacts.”

According to statistics from California Common Cause, California tribes made $12.7 million in political donations to candidates between January 2006 and July 2007; nearly all of the legislators who voted yes on the compacts when they were before the legislature received money. Of those voting no, 1 out of 5 senators and almost 1 out of 3 Assembly members didn’t get any money.

Assembly members who voted yes got an average of $13,494 from tribes over that period, while senators got $15,634. Members who voted no got around half as much.

Rachel Weiss of the Institute for Money in State Politics said the sheer amount of money involved is changing the game — and California is ground zero. For instance, in 2003 and 2004, there were gambling initiatives in front of voters in nine states — but over half of the $205 million spent on them went to Propositions 68 and 70 in California. But she also noted that big dollars don’t necessarily mean as much in such a huge state. Many states don’t have 5 million people, let alone 5 million likely voters from the minority party.

“It’s a little difficult to compare to other states because California has so much more money,” Weiss said. “California is sometimes in its own universe.”

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