Signature push begins for gaming initiative

Supporters have 150 days to qualify for ballot. With police and sheriffs at odds over the proposal, state officials Monday cleared the way for proponents to begin gathering signatures for an initiative that could lead to slot machines off Indian reservations.

The measure, called The Gaming Revenue Act of 2004, would allow 30,000 slot machines at 16 horse racing tracks and card rooms if all the state’s gambling tribes don’t agree to contribute 25 percent of their revenues to the state.

“Within a short period of time we will be out gathering signatures,” promised Greg Larsen, spokesman for Californians for Public Safety and Education, the initiative committee.

The proponents of the card club initiative will have 150 days to collect 598,105 signatures to qualify it for the November ballot.

Even though Larsen said the initiative has potential financial benefits for police as well as firefighters and social services, law enforcement officials are divided over the proposal.

The initiative was proposed by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas.

But the California State Sheriffs’ Association has taken an “advisory position to oppose” the initiative and will make a for- mal decision at a meeting Feb. 5-6, according to a statement released by sheriffs’ lobbyist Nick Warner.

The California Police Chiefs Association Monday issued a press release saying its board of directors has voted unanimously to oppose the non-Indian gambling initiative.

“Make no mistake; there is a serious link between large scale casino gambling and crime,” the police chief’s statement said. “That is why we oppose the Indian gaming initiatives and why we oppose this casino initiative.”

This view was challenged by a Baca spokesman, who said the sheriff supports the initiative both because it would raise money for law enforcement and would give card rooms and race tracks “equal footing with the Native American gambling interests.

“The sheriff (Baca) does not believe gambling is a contributor to an increase in crime,” added Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore.

Larsen dismissed the divisions, saying it was early in the campaign.

“We expect we will have significant public safety support once both individuals and organizations learn about the important funding mechanism that this will provide,” Larsen said.

Indians have formed a coalition to oppose the initiative that threatens their exclusive franchise of Nevada-style casino gambling in California.

One tribe, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, last week proposed an alternative initiative that would keep Vegas-style gambling on reservations and expand gaming rights in exchange for increased payments to the state.

Specifically, interested tribes could operate an unlimited number of slot machines – the maximum now is 2,000 per tribe — plus additional games like roulette if Indians contribute gaming revenue to the state at a rate equal to the state corporate tax rate, or 8.8 percent.

Fogerty said the coalition he represents would focus on defeating the card club initiative if it gets to the ballot, and let individual tribes make their own decisions on the Agua Caliente initiative.

Campaign representatives also were reluctant to discuss other aspects of campaign strategy. But there have been reports of possible legal challenges and other attacks on the card room initiative to prevent it from reaching the ballot.

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