Pechanga - Tribal Unity Could Trump Tracks In California Poker Debate

Pechanga Group Says Tribes, PokerStars Could Trump Tracks On iPoker

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A coalition of California’s politically powerful American Indian tribes is easing its opposition to Amaya/PokerStars in pressing for iPoker legislation that would prohibit licensing the racing industry, sources told Online Poker Report.

Indian leaders meeting Tuesday in San Diego suggested tribal unity with card rooms and PokerStars could overcome racing opposition to iPoker legislation that excludes tracks from operating websites, opposition that is thought to jeopardize chances of a bill generating the 2/3rds vote needed for passage.

“If all the tribes got together with PokerStars … I’d like to see any legislator try to get in front of that train,” said a tribal official at the meeting who requested anonymity.

Pechanga-led coalition involved in talks at NIGA

The possibility of cooperation was proposed during last week’s National Indian Gaming Association convention by a coalition of seven tribes headed by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians that, until recently, supported “bad actor” and “tainted asset” bill provisions that threatened PokerStars involvement in an online industry.

The Pechanga group does not want to extend licensing to the race tracks, claiming it would constitute an unnecessary expansion of legal gambling in California.

But the coalition is now willing to soften “bad actor” and “tainted assets” provisions of an online bill.

“We can work all that out,” a tribal official said.

The meeting was called by Cody Martinez, newly elected chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, in an effort to generate the tribal unity political insiders believe is necessary to get an iPoker bill out of the California legislature.

Representatives from nine tribes attended the meeting.

“That’s the idea Sycuan and Pechanga are floating … for the tribes to get together with PokerStars and overcome opposition from the tracks,” said Robert Martin, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.

“I don’t know. If we were all united, I could perhaps see where it would work.”

Morongo and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians are partners with PokerStars and three Los Angeles area card rooms in seeking an iPoker bill. The partnership has not opposed extending licenses to the pari-mutuel racing industry.

Three other tribes – Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, Pala Band of Luiseño Mission Indians and United Auburn Indian Community – have supported licensing tracks and easing “bad actor” and “tainted asset” provisions in iPoker legislation.

The Rincon band, owners of Harrah’s Rincon near San Diego, is partners with Caesars Entertainment, which recently announced it was working with Amaya/PokerStars in lobbying for U.S. online gambling initiatives.

Tribal representatives at last week’s meeting disagreed over the need to provide the racing industry with a subsidy from iPoker revenues.

Some said tracks should be allowed to operate competing websites.

Others suggested a coalition of tribes and Amaya/PokerStars would force the racing industry to accept a revenue share in lieu of licensing.

Elusive tribal consensus on poker in reach?

Nothing was agreed to at the meeting other than to continue discussions.

But the gathering did signal potential tribal unity on the issue if there can be agreement on the tracks.

“I’d like to see that happen,” Martin said.

Martinez was credited with providing the leadership needed to bridge a contentious gap between tribes on iPoker that resulted in heated debate at recent meetings.

Martin said the gathering provided him with a rare chance to speak with Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro, with whom he shares mutual respect.

“This was the first time we’ve had a chance to talk in a long, long time,” Martin said. “Chairman Macarro said he thinks we’re pretty closely aligned [on iPoker] except when it comes to the tracks. I agree with him.”

Where the racing lobby stands

Pari-mutuel racing, a broad-based, largely agricultural industry consisting of tracks and fair associations, horse owners and breeders and workers represented by the Teamsters and Service Employee International Union, has opposed poker legislation that would not license tracks.

California is one of only a few states where tracks do not have alternative means of funding, such as slot machines and table games.

Track owners said they would not accept a revenue share from an iPoker industry, contending a subsidy could be wiped out by future legislatures.

“The legislature’s own attorneys say racing is equally entitled – as are card rooms and as are tribes – to this new form of gaming,” said industry lobbyist Robyn Black, citing an opinion by the Office of Legislative Counsel. “This is not Indian gaming.

“If I’m a legislator and I have a breeding farm in my district, or a race track, or any number of the 50,000 agricultural and union employees… I don’t think you’re going to get 2/3rds of the legislators to ignore the racing industry’s right to this new form of gaming just because a few wealthy tribes want it that way.”

Gov. Jerry Brown reportedly said he would not sign into law legislation that did not address concerns of the state’s racing industry.

It’s not clear, however, if he strongly advocates allowing tracks to operate poker websites.

Legislative calendar suggests action to come

There are four I-poker 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.

Legislators return from an Easter Holiday recess this week, launching a six-week period during which there is expected to be a series of committee hearings on pending legislation.

Arthur Terzakis, director of the Senate GOC, said last week he did not know if Hall and Gray will hold separate informational hearings on iPoker or if the committees will conduct one or more joint sessions.

- 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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