By SAM KENNEDY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Casino money from Indian tribes throughout California is flowing into the coffers of local lawmakers.
The two senators and three Assembly members who represent the North Coast in Sacramento have collected sizable campaign contributions from tribes flush with gambling profits. Together, they raked in a quarter-million dollars in the past two years. Senate President pro tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, received the most -- $167,000, or about 5 percent of the $3.1 million in campaign contributions he reported in 2001 and 2002. As the leader of the Legislature's upper house, Burton is one of the most influential politicians, and biggest fund-raisers, in the state.
The Barona band of Mission Indians, which operates a casino in San Diego County, cut a check to Burton for $55,000. It was the sixth-largest donation to a California legislator during the period. Totals for other local lawmakers were: Sen. Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, $15,500; Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, $23,500; Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, $23,000; and Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, $14,500.
The North Coast's legislative delegation sponsored a number of bills that were beneficial to California Indians. One by Burton and Chesbro would have granted tribes expanded influence over cultural sites outside their reservations. Another by Wiggins established cheating in casinos as a criminal act.
The relationship between politicians and casino money is of particular interest now because Gov. Gray Davis' plan to overcome California's massive budget deficit assumes tribes will share $1.5 billion in casino revenue with the state.
The governor, who also has received major tribal contributions, wants to renegotiate the deal he struck three years ago. He proposed lifting a limit of 2,000 slot machines per tribe in exchange for the money.Any agreement reached between the governor and tribes will need the approval of the Legislature before becoming law. And, critics of the process point out, many of the legislators who will vote on the matter have accepted contributions from tribes with casinos.
"They tend now to give to everyone ... to buy access to all incumbents," said Jim Knox, director of California Common Cause, which advocates partial public financing of campaigns as the way to curb the influence of big contributors.
In the past five years, California's Indian tribes have contributed more than $100 million to candidates and ballot initiatives, far more than any other special interest group. "The casinos are basically the financial engines that allow them to expand and assert their sovereignty," said Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up For California, a gambling watchdog group.
Tribes say they are simply playing the political game by its well-established rules.
"There are many issues that affect tribes that legislators from all over the state weigh in on," said Barry Brokaw, lobbyist for the Agua Caliente band. "The tribes support their friends," he said. Most of the casino money that local lawmakers collected in the past two years came from Southern California tribes, such as the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians and the Cabazon band of Mission Indians, both from the Palm Springs area.
Among North Coast tribes, only the Robinson Rancheria turned up on campaign disclosure reports, with a $500 donation to Chesbro.Each of the lawmakers, with the exception of newcomer Berg, introduced bills for which tribes had vigorously lobbied.
Burton and Chesbro co-wrote a bill last year that would have protected sacred sites from development and required local governments to notify a tribe of proposed construction within 20 miles of a reservation.It was vetoed, but Nation introduced similar legislation this year. Nation's bill would preserve culturally significant areas within the jurisdiction of the Coastal Commission.
Wiggins authored a bill on cheating. It outlawed counterfeit chips and card-counting devices, among other things.Barona tribal leaders, who gave the assemblywoman $13,000, celebrated in September when the governor signed the bill into law. But some observers complained that it left taxpayers to foot the bill of investigating the new crimes, trying alleged offenders and incarcerating those found guilty.
"It's state legislation that requires us to give these things to tribal governments without requesting payment for those services," said Schmit of Stand Up For California. "That's where the rub comes in. It's who's going to pay."
Some lawmakers bristle at the accusation that campaign contributions influence their decisions."We've got no comment on taking money from anybody," said Matt Reilly, Wiggins' chief of staff. "It speaks for itself. People can make of it what they will."
Burton, Chesbro and Berg didn't return phone calls for this story. Nation's chief of staff, Paul Smith, said the assemblyman has benefited from the largess of Indian tribes because he is viewed as someone who "listens to their arguments."
But many outsiders -- and even some insiders -- are unwilling to accept the idea that casino money is buying nothing more than good listeners in Sacramento. "There's something not OK about that much money going in.It just doesn't feel OK to me," said Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown, who served in the Assembly from 1992 to 1998 and is now working for four Los Angeles-area cities with card rooms threatened by tribal casinos. "Perhaps things are different up there now," she said.
News researcher Michele Van Hoeck contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Sam Kennedy at 521-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.