Casino deal is good enough, given constraints

Thunder Valley Casino Resort will be allowed to operate up to 3,500 slot machines as part of a new state gambling compact.
Thunder Valley Casino Resort will be allowed to operate up to 3,500 slot machines as part of a new state gambling compact. Sacramento Bee file

The Legislature has ratified a compact authorizing the United Auburn Indian Community to operate as many as 3,500 slot machines at its lucrative Thunder Valley casino for the next 25 years.

And in the weeks and months ahead, Gov. Jerry Brown will announce compacts with several other tribes. Given the state of federal law, Brown’s deal with United Auburn is about as good as it can be, and should serve as a template.

In 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals restricted California’s authority to require that tribes pay into the general fund in exchange for their exclusive right to operate Las Vegas-style casinos on their reservations.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had made general fund payments key to his compacts with tribes, and those payments will amount to about $250 million this year. That is going away.

Under the new deals, tribes’ payments to the general fund will decrease significantly, but other payments to local governments will rise. As part of the deal struck last month, United Auburn agreed to pay $36 million a year, down from the $42.4 million in its 2004 deal with Schwarzenegger.

Of that $36 million, the tribe will pay about $18 million for roads and other public works projects and public safety in Placer County, and environmental and social programs, perhaps including renewable energy and charging stations for electric cars. The state’s general fund will receive roughly $6 million, and $3 million more will help pay for state oversight of gambling.

In the 2000 campaign for the ballot measure that gave tribes the exclusive right to operate casinos, advocates promised voters that casinos would help Indians become self-reliant. It worked for some.

Tribes with land in choice locations operate profitable casinos. But most of the state’s 100-plus tribes have land in remote locations. Brown seeks to remedy the inequity by persuading United Auburn and other wealthy tribes to increase payments to the have-nots.

United Auburn would pay about $9 million annually to help less fortunate Indians, an increase from the $2 million under the Schwarzenegger deal.

One benefit of casinos is that they provide jobs. Those jobs ought to pay a fair wage, with benefits. Thunder Valley workers are part of the Unite-HERE union, but most casinos operate nonunion shops. In a deal struck with a Santa Barbara County casino tribe last week, Brown rightly insisted on provisions that could help casino workers organize.

Labor provisions are especially important, given efforts by U.S. Senate and House Republicans to reverse a National Labor Relations Board decision that provides Indian casino workers with National Labor Relations Act protections, and exempt Indian casino workers from the Affordable Care Act.

We at The Sacramento Bee editorial board are not fans of gambling. But voters legalized Indian casinos 15 years ago, and that won’t change. Tribes that have become wealthy have shown a willingness to cement their exclusive right to operate casinos by spending millions on campaigns.

Playing the hand he was dealt, Brown is doing what he can to encourage tribes to help less fortunate Indians, provide worker protections, and pay to offset some impacts of their enterprises. United Auburn showed its progressive view by agreeing to the terms. We hope other tribes agree to similar terms. Given legal and political constraints, that will have to suffice.