CA Tribal Discord On Tracks Causing Doubt Over iPoker Regulation

The Role Of Race Tracks In California Online Poker: A Conflict Without A Compromise?

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A coalition of politically powerful American Indian tribes is taking a hard line against iPoker legislation in California that would license racing associations, wary it would constitute an erosion of the tribes’ constitutionally guaranteed exclusivity to engage in casino gambling.

Seven tribes led by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians of Temecula are standing firm against any online poker bill that would license tracks, contending publicly that it would violate voter-approved public policy against expanded gambling in California.

But on a private, esoteric level, Indian leaders are concerned about the long-term sustainability of tribal gambling, which in California and elsewhere is used to fund government programs.

They view any potential erosion of the constitutionally guaranteed exclusivity tribes have to engage in casino gambling as a threat to tribal governance and self-determination.

It’s an issue not confronted by state officials and commercial stakeholders in the iPoker debate.

For many tribes, caution is the watchword

“Tribes should be careful not to sell out to corporate interests,” Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro said. “They need to evaluate things in regard to what is best for their tribe and, at the same time, what is best for Indian country.

“Does the proposal sell out principles that to tribes are important? There are certain things we should look out for. It can’t just be about the deal. Certain things shouldn’t be negotiated.”

Macarro’s sentiments are apparently shared by six other tribes in the coalition:

  • Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs
  • Barona Band of Mission Indians in Lakeside
  • Lytton Band of Pomo Indians near San Francisco
  • Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego
  • Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians of Alpine
  • Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation near Sacramento

They do not see card room involvement in online poker as a threat to tribal casino exclusivity. The California card room industry dates back a century, long before compacted tribal gambling.

Split on tracks fundamentally threatens online poker efforts

Consensus among tribes is considered crucial to getting iPoker legalized in California. And the depth of the concern tribes have on the tracks may very well spell defeat for an online poker bill that will require a 2/3rds vote of the legislature.

“No iPoker in California is the clearly preferable option” to legislation licensing tracks, Agua Caliente Chairman Jeff Grubbe said.

Pechanga counsel Steve Bodmer issued a similar warning at last week’s iGaming Legislative Symposium in Sacramento.

“If you’re prioritizing … racetracks being involved is much more problematic for my client as well as numerous other tribes we work with,” Bodmer said. “This is a big issue because it’s an unnecessary expansion of gaming in California.

“Are we making a principled decision or are we making a business decision?”

The Pechanga coalition has the political clout to block iPoker legislation.

“Without Pechanga, there will be no bill,” a state official who requested anonymity told

The view from the other side

One should be careful not to suggest other tribal leaders in partnership with online vendors and anxious to launch poker websites are any less concerned with the future sustainability of their indigenous communities.

Several tribes see the Internet as an important and urgent step in the evolution of tribal gambling. And many tribes view extending licenses to the thoroughbred racing industry as a necessary political step in getting online poker out of the California legislature.

No tribal leader cares more about the well-being of his citizens than Bo Mazzetti, chairman of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, partners with Caesars Entertainment.

The same can be said of Robert Martin and Lynn Valbuena, leaders of the Morongo and San Manuel bands of mission Indians, who are partners with Amaya/PokerStars.

Mazzetti, Martin, Valbuena and others do not believe licensing tracks as a threat to the future prosperity of their communities.

“There’s no question the race tracks have to be eligible for licensing,” Mazzetti said. “That’s from the governor’s office. It’s going to be in there or there’s no bill.”

And Martin warns it is not likely all tribes would reach consensus on bill language.

“All of the tribes are not going to get together,” Martin said. “It just is not going to happen.”

Where it goes from here

There are four iPoker bills pending in the state Legislature.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s AB9 limits licenses to tribes and card rooms.

Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer’s AB167 extends license eligibility to the tracks.

Identical “shell” bills sponsored by Assemblyman Adam Gray and Senator Isadore Hall, chairmen of Government Organization committees through which a bill must pass, do not address license eligibility.

Proponents are right to point out that online poker is a state asset and a commercial venture to be taxed and regulated by the state. It is not gambling under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

But if an online poker bill comes out of the legislative cycle which ends in 2016, lawmakers will have to convince tribal leaders the future sustainability of their communities will not be sacrificed to the cause.

That may not be easy.

Image credit: Cheryl Ann Quigley /

- Dave Palermo is an award-winning metropolitan newspaper reporter. He has written about American Indian governments for more than 20 years, working as an advocate for several tribes and tribal associations. He also has co-authored books on gambling and gambling law.
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