By Chairman James Siva, CNIGA
As the summer heads into fall, and the California Legislature nears the end of its session, the California Nations Indian Gaming Association is active on the legislative front. In June, CNIGA endorsed SB 549 and it has quickly become priority legislation for the organization. SB 549, authored by state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), ultimately seeks a state court decision as to whether California card rooms are offering illegal games.
A History of Challenges
Over the last decade, tribes have watched as commercial cardrooms have gradually introduced games and practices that seem, on their face, to violate the California Constitution, which grants tribes exclusive rights to operate slot machines and banking and percentage card games on Indian lands. Multiple efforts to prompt the state to enforce the law have proven to be a Sisyphean task as the state has simply refused to act.
Similarly, legal actions have avoided contending with the central question as to whether these games fit the legal definition of what is allowable under state law. Previous Tribal lawsuits seeking a hearing on these cardroom-controlled games were dismissed in both state and federal court not on the legal merits of the practice, but merely on procedural grounds. SB 549 would give Tribes legal standing.
Specifically, SB 549 would authorize a limited declaratory and injunctive relief action before the Superior Court of California, County of Sacramento to determine, once and for all, whether certain controlled games operated by California card clubs are banking card games that violate California law and infringe upon Tribal exclusive gaming rights.
Essentially, SB 549 would allow for a one-off court case to determine whether these games and practices are legal. It would settle, once and for all, a dispute that is sure to come up again and again with the state legislature and attorney general’s office. A definitive judgement would give clarity to both tribes and card rooms.
Risk vs. Reward
To be clear, going into a courtroom is a considerable risk for tribes, as there is no guarantee there would be a judgement in their favor. Tribal governments are losing significant revenue that funds vital governmental services because of what we believe are illegal practices at commercial card rooms, which crystallizes the risk. However, any kind of judgment would at least provide clarity as to the parameters of business practices for both Tribal governments and commercial operators.
While testifying on behalf of the bill at an Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing in July, Tuari Bigknife, the attorney general for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, questioned why commercial establishments, whose representatives were well-represented in opposition to SB 549 at the hearing, would oppose this bill and said “if (commercial gaming interests) believe that these games are legal, they should be eager to prove it in court.”
SB 549 passed the Judiciary Committee on a 6 to 0 vote, where five additional committee members, most of whom indicated at least some sentiment in favor of the commercial interests in their comments during the hearing, seemed to be swayed by the strength of the Tribal argument and abstained from voting on the bill.
After being referred to the Assembly Rules Committee, the bill has hit a snag, as it has been hung up in that committee by its chairman, Assemblymember James Ramos (D-Highland), which has left many Tribal leaders puzzled as to why AB 549 is being held. Ramos, a former chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians himself, has agreed to meet with Tribal leaders to discuss the bill’s fate. Unfortunately, the meeting will be after press time, but I will include information on the bill’s status in the next update.
CNIGA met with new California Speaker Robert Rivas in early August regarding the bill and informed him that this bill is a CNIGA priority. In the other house of the California Legislature, SB 549 has the backing of Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, who is principal co-author of the bill. She spoke at CNIGA’s August membership meeting, where she reiterated her support saying, “We think this bill stands a good chance of passing if it ultimately gets released to the floors of each house of the state Legislature.”
Investing in the Future
Beyond the current legislative front, CNIGA has conducted some preliminary discussions on increasing payments disbursed by the Indian Gaming Revenue Sharing Trust Fund. This is a fund that was set up as part of the first round of Tribal/ state gaming compacts in 1999 in which tribes operating fewer than 350 gaming devices would receive money from the fund that would be paid into by tribes with more than 350 gaming devices.
Currently, RSTF-eligible tribes receive $1.1 million annually, an amount that has been unchanged since the fund was established in 1999. The value of $1.1 million in 1999 is equivalent to about $1.8 million currently.
Stemming from sports wagering discussions at a CNIGA membership meeting earlier this year, it became clear during the course of discussions that there was a good level of interest regarding increasing RSTF payments to eligible tribes.
Thus far, however, the discussions have yet to reach a consensus on this issue generally nor on the myriad possible avenues for achieving it. Discussions are still ongoing within membership, and we will report if any progress is made on this front.
This article was written by James Siva, Chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. For more information, please visit www.cniga.com.