It’s been a hectic week or so for me, and one of the issues that’s fallen through the cracks has been the manufactured controversy over Tribal contributions to Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Democratic Party in the wake of last year’s Spokane Tribe gambling compact. Writing in the Seattle P-I, reporter Chris McGann kicked off the recent brouhaha with a lede I would have sworn was penned by WSRP communications director Patrick Bell, if not for its coherence (and the lack of tell-tale food stains).
OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire is benefiting from more than $650,000 in campaign contributions from Indian tribes that hit the jackpot in 2005 when she killed a gambling compact potentially worth more than $140 million a year to the state.
Yes, there are a few reporters who actually have a comprehensive understanding of Washington’s gambling industry and the state and federal statutes that govern it… but McGann clearly ain’t one of them. Indeed, apart from the TNT’s Peter Callaghan, no journalist has written more extensively or authoritatively on state gambling issues than, well, me, and so when I tell you that the spin that has dominated recent media coverage of this story is total bullshit, I do so backed up by a four-year history of writing on this subject that is both credible and dare I say, bipartisan in its criticism of both political parties.
I’ll address the issue of campaign contributions in a follow-up post, but in implying that the tribes “hit the jackpot” when Gov. Gregoire rejected the initial Spokane compact, McGann displayed zero understanding of the statutes governing the process, the political machinations surrounding negotiations, and the details of the compact itself. In fact, far from hitting the jackpot, Gregoire’s rejection of the 2005 compact was a huge blow to the ambitions of the entire tribal gaming industry, and an unexpected victory for those of us working to curb gambling expansion statewide.
Let’s be clear… the 2005 compact was the deal the Spokanes negotiated—these were the terms they wanted—and while it would have shared revenue with the state, it would have set in motion a massive expansion of gambling that would forever reshape the face of Washington. In exchange for revenue sharing the state gave up huge concessions, including 24-hour operations, no betting limits, casino credit, and an off-reservation casino. But as I wrote at the time:
… the most dramatic and dangerous concession was granting the Spokane Tribe rights to 7,500 slot machines… as many as 4000 at a single location. Under previous compacts, each tribe was limited to directly owning only 675 slot machines; via leasing agreements with other tribes, as many as 1500 could be placed at a single location. Spokane’s 7,500 slots would be a huge increase over the 18,000 slots currently in operation statewide.
And that was just the beginning. Under federal law, any terms we offered the Spokanes must also be made available to the other 27 recognized tribes, eventually leading to an exponential expansion of slot machines, and the creation of Las Vegas style casinos throughout the state, on and off reservation. The 2005 compact would have led to both a public health and a political disaster, and as I have done throughout my reporting on this subject, I never shied away from warning the governor about the potential consequences.
Whatever the intent, this is a slap in the face of voters who just last year, overwhelmingly rejected Initiative 892 and its flood of slot machines… and if the governor signs this compact, hurling us down a one way road towards unfettered casino gambling, there will be a price to pay at the polls.
Washington state is already suffering from an epidemic of problem gambling, with all the inherent social and financial costs… and the last thing we need is for our state and local governments to become addicted to gambling too. This compact would set a dangerous precedent that would be impossible to overturn. It is bad for families, and it is bad for the smaller, rural tribes who would be shut out of leasing agreements. It is bad for Washington state.
And we need to let Governor Gregoire know that if she signs this compact, it will be bad for her too.
Revenue sharing bad for Washington state? Don’t just take my word for it, listen to State Sen. Margarita Prentice (whose opponent, by the way, I support in the primary) echoing my analysis nearly three years later:
Tribal gaming is almost a billion-dollar industry in our state — all of it untaxed. Revenue sharing with the tribes could represent a potential new source of income for the state worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But in the end, revenue sharing is just a bad idea.
If the governor had approved the Spokanes’ compact as initially proposed, Pandora’s Box would have been thrown wide open. All other tribes would immediately insist on the same deal — including more allotted slot machines and the ability the operate casinos off their reservations.
There are currently around 17,000 slot machines in operation on tribal lands in our state. Can you imagine if all 28 tribes were suddenly allowed to operate 7,500 machines each instead of the current allotment of 675? The effect would be the most unprecedented explosion of gambling in our state’s history — when the public already has said time and again that enough is enough.
Plus, it would be very difficult for the state to regulate the gambling activities of the tribes when it’s also their financial partner.
To imply, as recent press coverage has, that tribal contributions to the Democrats are in any way a payoff for the governor’s rejection of the 2005 compact, is at best a gross misreading of the events, and at worst a deliberate distortion of the facts. The tribes were a signature away from an opportunity to earn billions of dollars in additional revenue, but as Sen. Prentice confirms, there was widespread bipartisan consensus at the time that the state should not get itself hooked on revenue sharing, and that the final Spokane compact should ultimately limit the potential for further gambling expansion, while restricting casinos to reservation lands. And that is what Gov. Gregoire ultimately (if imperfectly) achieved.
I say imperfect, because I am one of the few who publicly urged the governor to reject the 2007 compact as well, although its concessions ultimately proved far less damaging or inexcusable than the press coverage initially suggested. In January of 2007 I called the revised compact a “suckers bet,” warning that…
State Republicans sense the enormous political opportunity this proposed compact gives them, and they don’t even have to resort to lies, hate-mongering and obfuscations to make their point. So hot is the WSRP on this issue that they even made it a primary focus of a recent conference call with journalists and (mostly) right-wing bloggers.
I was so disturbed by the proposed compact that I actually invited Rep. Bruce Chandler (R-Granger) onto 710-KIRO and gave the ranking Republican on the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee some prime airtime in which to trash the governor. In fact, I wrote and spoke out so forcefully against the the compact that Gov. Gregoire’s Chief of Staff Tom Fitzsimmons called me up to explain the terms, answer my questions, and correct some of my misunderstandings. The result…? Perhaps the most lucid and detailed exposition on the Spokane compact you will find anywhere online or in print, a must read for anybody who honestly cares about knowing what this compact does and does not do. My conclusion:
When it comes to the number of facilities and authorized machines, the Spokanes demanded the same sort of deal negotiated by the Colvilles. Given the Spokanes’ favored nation status, the state really couldn’t do anything about that. But this authorization would be totally worthless to the Spokanes without a larger universe of slot machines from which to lease, so while nothing requires the state to bump up the allocation from 675 to 900, there’s a certain irrefutable logic to doing so.
[...] What the state gets from this is an end to the Spokanes’ illegal operations, relatively uniform compact terms across all 28 tribes — and assuming all the tribes seek the same deal — about $2.6 million a year in additional funding for problem gambling treatment and prevention programs.
I still urged the governor to reject the deal because I felt the state held the stronger hand, and could have negotiated a similar compact that did not include concessions like cash-fed slot machines and higher betting limits, but in the context of what might have happened, these complaints constitute a minor quibble. It was the 2005 compact that would have been a “jackpot” for tribal gaming interests, not its rejection. And given the mess she inherited, Gov. Gregoire has done about the best she could in keeping a lid on further gambling expansion.
As Sen. Prentice concludes:
The governor fixed a broken situation she inherited. She wisely rejected the agreement reached between the Gambling Commission and the Spokanes and sent both parties back to the drawing board.
[...] Any questions now being raised about the governor’s leadership role — after two legislative sessions with nary a peep, and right before the gubernatorial election — are not motivated by policy. They’re motivated by politics.
And any suggestion that tribal interests are rewarding the governor for her rejection of the lucrative 2005 Spokane compact, simply runs counter to both logic, and the facts.