California Nations Indian Gaming Update

By James Siva

Though the legislative session in California is over and we are now well past the deadline for the governor to sign or veto legislation, it is a busy time for CNIGA. We find ourselves planning for future legislation and events while simultaneously reacting to unplanned actions.

An Update on SB-549

On the legislative front, we were disappointed that SB 549 (Newman) the Tribal Declaratory Relief Act, which would give tribes standing in state court to ultimately rule on whether California’s commercial card rooms are offering illegal games, remained stalled. As we reported in the previous column, SB 549 had hit an unexpected snag and was being held up on the Assembly Rules Committee.

Unfortunately, that’s where it remained as the session ended. Both the Chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee and newly elected Speaker Robert Rivas have said the other was responsible for the bill’s lack of movement. Despite this, SB 549 looks likely to be revived in the new year’s session, as this year was the first of a two-year legislative session. We are having conversations and are hopeful that SB 549 will move forward when the legislature reconvenes in January.

CNIGA is also busy planning are two candidate forums. These will feature candidates for the state legislature, and he held in late November and early December. So far, we have 28 confirmed candidates for our forums this year. These forums are always fun and good way to learn about the candidates for office and for them, in turn, to learn a little about Indian Country in California.

Though planning for events is a major part of what CNIGA does, we often must quickly react to events from the outside. This is exactly what happened in late October, when CNIGA was surprised by the sudden filing of two initiatives, “The Sports Wagering Regulation and Tribal Gaming Protection Act” and “The Tribal Gaming Protection Act,” with the California Secretary of State’s office. We were more surprised to find out that they were supposedly filed on behalf of tribes. This was certainly news to us.

Two New Initiatives and Their Impacts

We subsequently found out that they were submitted by gambling industry veteran Kasey Thompson and blockchain executive Reeve Collins. Though highly dubious at the manner in which the initiatives were filed, the CNIGA Executive Committee agreed to a meeting with Thompson, Collins, and a few of their colleagues. Unfortunately, this meeting did nothing to assuage our apprehension.

In essence, these initiatives are a deceptive and cynical attempt to legalize offshore sports betting providers by “washing” them through tribal governments. While the stated goal of the proponents of these initiatives is to bring back money from illegal offshore online operators to California is seemingly noble, using tribes in this way is not.

There is also a shocking lack of transparency as to who, specifically, is funding these efforts; something that the proponents of these initiatives refuse to divulge publicly.

We were highly offended by the lack of organization, basic understanding of tribal governments and the political process by the initiative proponents. In fact, they seemed to have little understanding of who was on the Zoom call and cynically sought to exploit divisions within Indian tribes. It was hard not to be offended when listening to these individuals speak. It was but another example of outside influences trying to divide and conquer Indian tribes.

What Does This Mean?

California tribes have been successfully engaged in the gaming market for more than four decades. This didn’t happen by mistake, nor without careful consideration on the effects to our members and our surrounding communities. Tribal leaders are experts in the California gaming market, a fact of which the proponents seemed wholly unaware.

We were so alarmed following the CNIGA Executive Committee meeting with the proponents, that we convened an emergency meeting of our membership the following day and unanimously voted on a motion to formally oppose these initiatives. We are hoping, now that the sponsors have heard directly from tribes that their efforts are not supported, they will drop the initiatives as they have pledged.

Disturbingly, the initiative proponents went to the media and tried to spin to reporters that a handful of abstentions somehow translated as overwhelming support for their initiatives, when the overwhelming majority of tribes present in a clear quorum, voted in favor of opposing the initiatives. In fact, not a single tribe voted to support the initiatives.

These initiatives were flawed from the start. The backers are attempting to cash in on the hard-earned goodwill tribal governments statewide have earned with the people of California. We will not allow it. This effort should serve as a case study on the wrong way to go about business in Indian Country and the wrong way to approach tribes. I hope by my next column that these initiatives will be little more than a distant memory.