Unions, race track owners seek referendum on Tribal compacts

A coalition of union workers and race track owners have taken the first step toward asking California voters to weigh in on four tribal gaming compacts signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger that together could more than double the number of slot machines at some of the state’s largest Indian casinos.

The compacts, which proponents say could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars for the state’s general fund, could go before voters in the form of four separate measures, each called a referendum, on the next statewide ballot–which is also the Feb. 5 presidential primary. A referendum, a constitutional device that does not commonly appear on statewide ballots, asks voters whether a law should be thrown out.

Jack Gribbon, the political strategist for UNITE HERE, a restaurant and hotel workers union, filed the request for a title and summary for the for measure on Friday with state Attorney General Jerry Brown. The filing is the first step in getting to the ballot; the next is permission from the secretary of state to begin circulating petitions for voter signatures. About 434,000 valid signatures are required for each referendum to qualify.

The compacts are binding agreements between the state and casino-owning Indian tribes. They define the type and extent of gambling allowed to each tribe, including the kinds of games and the numbers of slot machines. Labor groups have attacked the compacts as anti-union, and race track owners have long opposed casino expansion because it takes revenue from the tracks.

Tribal interests, at least so far, are keeping their distance from the referenda.

“We are concerned about change in the revenue structure of these compacts,” said Howard Dickstein, a lawyer who has represented tribal interests.

Dickstein said the new compacts give incentives to the tribes to add more machines than they may need, making it more difficult for smaller, neighboring tribes to compete.”

Some tribes have also expressed concerns that separate memoranda that extracted concessions from the tribes outside the formal compacts set a dangerous precedent, and propose a threat to tribal soverignty.

The referenda target compacts with the Morongo, Pechanga, Sycuan and Agua Caliente tribes. The fifth compact, with the Yurok tribe, was not included.

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