California Indian tribes and cardrooms rarely agree on anything. Most California tribes and cardrooms this week supported a bill to reinstate a cardroom moratorium.
The bill was introduced by Asm. James Ramos, a former tribal chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. The Senate Governmental Organization (GO) Committee voted 11-0 “do pass” on Tuesday, advancing AB 341 to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“This is truly a compromise that has come together,” Ramos told the committee. “We’ve been able to put people together in the same room for over a year to discuss these issues that haven’t traditionally sat down with each other for over 30 years.”
Ramos’ bill, which allows for a modest increase in table games for small cardrooms while preventing the opening of new card clubs, passed the Assembly last month by a 68-1 vote.
Tribes and cardrooms voice support
Existing California cardrooms and tribes can’t agree on much. But both don’t want increased competition in the California gaming landscape.
Getting the bill through Senate GO was significant. Chairman Sen. Bill Dodd blocked a bill passed by the Assembly last year that would have extended the moratorium one year. He wanted a more substantial compromise.
Ramos led a work group to find that compromise, which has two main points:
- Preventing the opening of new cardrooms for the next 20 years.
- Allowing cardrooms with 20 or fewer tables to add 10 tables over 16 years.
Six tribes and three cardrooms signed on as co-sponsors of AB 341. The California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), representing 47 of the 71 gaming tribes in the state, also supports the bill.
“We believe AB 341 is a compromise that provides a balance by allowing measured growth of the cardroom industry that is consistent with California voters’ support of tribal gaming,” said Morongo Band of Mission Indians Tribal Chairman Charles Martin.
Joy Harn, general counsel for Commerce Casino, said putting the moratorium back in place ensured the viability of existing cardrooms and the economic security of the cities they support.
“AB 341 has accomplished what only last year seemed impossible, unifying tribes and cardrooms to protect against an unlimited expansion of gambling while at the same time allowing measured growth for small cardrooms and protecting local revenues that are so critical to our host cities.”
Not all CA tribes support cardroom moratorium bill
Cody Martinez, tribal chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, said the workgroup’s language allowed expansion at cardrooms with fewer than 20 gaming tables.
But the bill when filed changed that language to 20 or fewer. Martinez contended that the small change allows multiple cardrooms to expand in the tribe’s backyard.
Dustin Murray, tribal administrator for the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, complained that the cardrooms with 20 or fewer tables were highly concentrated near the tribe’s casino in Northern California.
Jeff Butler, general counsel for Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, said the tribe objected to the carveout for two San Jose cardrooms. Despite having 49 gaming tables each, they would each get to add 15 tables. The carveout is the result of San Jose voters approving the expansion in 2020.
Martinez said he had an amendment but Dodd refused to consider any amendments in the committee. The Pechanga Band of Indians did not support the legislation, wanting to see amendments.
Sen. Anthony Portantino, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he expects amendment(s) ready before the bill reaches his committee.
Ramos, the first California tribal member in the state legislature, said he would continue working with Martinez on an amendment.
“In art of compromise, it’s not 100% here and 100% here,” Ramos said. “We’re probably at 90% and 90%, and that shows that the work that was put together was fruitful and voices were heard.”
Tribes allowing expansion of what they call illegal games
California tribes have long claimed that cardrooms violate their exclusivity over house-banked games. Cardrooms use third-party vendors to offer the traditionally house-banked game of blackjack.
The cardroom moratorium bill creates an interesting dilemma for the tribes. Essentially, they’re supporting the expansion of what they call illegal games. But if they did not, cardroom activities could become even more widespread in the state.
Bo Mazetti, tribal chairman for the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, explained the situation:
“I want to make it clear to the committee, by supporting this bill we do not condone the illegal activity that’s going on by the cardrooms and the fact that the attorney general will not enforce the law.”
Multiple California attorney generals have not acted on tribal complains. And multiple tribal lawsuits against the state to try to force such action have failed.
Sen. Steve Glazer asked for Ramos to speak on the legality of cardroom games. Ramos gave a more measured response than the usual tribal rhetoric:
“The question as far as legality of the games being played has been looked at by different attorney generals but no ruling in the state of CA has deemed them illegal to this point. If they were deemed illegal, we would be putting that inside the bill. Currently in the state of California there is [nothing] saying that these games are illegal at this point. The debate has been going on for well over 15 years. So we want to make sure that we set the moratorium, that we continue to work with card clubs and tribal groups to ensure modest growth and also protect the economy in California.”