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Sports betting initiative, backed by California tribes, eligible for 2022 ballot

May 27, 2021

Desert Sun

An initiative that would allow California tribal casinos to offer sports betting became eligible for the ballot Thursday, after more than 1 million signatures were verified by county election officials across the state.

The measure would let federally recognized tribes in California operate roulette, dice games and sports wagering on tribal lands, as long as tribal-state gaming compacts are negotiated with the governor and approved by the state legislature. 

Privately operated horse-racing tracks in Alameda, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties also would be allowed to offer onsite sports wagering for those 21 and older, starting in 2022. A 10% tax would be applied to sports-betting profits at the tracks, and a portion of that revenue would be directed to “enforcement and problem-gambling programs,” according to the initiative.

The measure will likely appear on ballots in November 2022. It will be certified as qualified for the ballot on June 30, 2022, the California Secretary of State’s office said, unless it is withdrawn by proponents before then. 

This week, 1,061,282 signatures from registered voters were verified — only 997,139 valid signatures were required for the initiative to move forward.

Several tribal nations and chairmen in the state have backed the sports betting initiative, including Jeff Grubbe, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The tribe, whose reservation is checkerboarded across Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, owns three area casinos. 

Other proponents are listed as Edwin “Thorpe” Romero, former chairman of the Barona Band of Mission Indians in San Diego County; Anthony Roberts, chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in Brooks, northwest of Sacramento; and Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians near Temecula. 

Macarro, the Pechanga chairman, said in a statement Thursday that proponents are grateful to the Californians who signed petitions. 

“This is an important step toward giving Californians the opportunity to participate in sports wagering while also establishing safeguards and protections against underage gambling,” Macarro said. 

California tribes have given millions of dollars in cash contributions to the committee supporting the initiative, called the Coalition to Authorize Regulated Sports Wagering. Agua Caliente, for one, has given $1.25 million to the committee, according to campaign finance documents obtained on the Secretary of State website. 

Agua Caliente did not respond to requests for comment. 

Both Pechanga and Yocha Dehe have given $2 million; followed by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which is located in Sonoma County, at $1.7 million; and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in San Bernardino County at $1.5 million. 

In total, the committee has raised $11.55 million in cash contributions, documents showed. All monetary contributions were made last year. 

California cardrooms push back

Many non-tribal cardrooms and casinos, which are not included in the measure, have pushed back against the initiative. 

A committee registered as opposing the measure, called No on the Gambling Power Grab, received $1.1 million in monetary contributions, though the committee’s status was listed as terminated on the Secretary of State’s website as of last November. 

Several groups gave the committee $155,000 each last year, including Elevation Entertainment Group in San Diego as well as Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, The Gardens Casino in Hawaiian Gardens and Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood, all near Los Angeles. 

Cardrooms have also given significant donations to Attorney General Rob Bonta’s 2022 reelection campaign, Politico reported last week. Attorneys general in California are tasked with issuing the official title and brief summary of ballot initiatives, which voters then read and consider. 

The California Gaming Association, a trade group of licensed cardrooms and vendors in the state, opposes the sports betting measure.

“This initiative will not legalize sports wagering in California,” Kyle Kirkland, the association’s president, wrote in a statement to The Desert Sun. “Instead, it expands the tribal casino operators’ untaxed monopoly on gaming without benefit to Californians and prioritizes tribal casino operators’ wealth over the needs of California communities and public health.” 

Proponents of the proposed initiative maintained in language of the measure that since 2000, “California tribal governments have operated Indian gaming casinos on their own tribal lands, generating much-needed resources to help reverse the brutal history endured by California Native Americans.”

California tribes have also shared more than $1 billion in revenue with non-gaming tribes in the last two decades, they added. 

Tribal casinos in California pulled in revenues of roughly $8.4 billion in 2016, according to the Sacramento Business Journal.

The cardroom industry had a total output, or gross revenue from cardroom activities, of about $5.6 billion in 2019, the California Gaming Association reported. Statewide taxes were evaluated at about $500 million. 

Kirkland also pointed to the fact that cardrooms complied with COVID-19 closure orders from the state late last year as cases surged, while many California tribal casinos remained open, some still operating indoor restaurants and bars.

Though Native American tribes, as sovereign nations, were not required to follow the state’s coronavirus orders, at least one viral infections expert and several casino employees expressed concern at the time that the gaming facilities were staying open. 

Verification deadline extended

A certain number of valid signatures is needed to get ballot initiatives in front of voters.

The sports wagering initiative gathered more than 1.4 million “raw” signatures last December. County elections officials then worked to conduct a “full check” of those signatures. 

Before this week’s final tally, 771,992 signatures across the state had been verified, with roughly 400,000 left to validate, according to numbers released May 21. 

Last month, the deadline for counties to report the total number of valid signatures was extended to May 26. 

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