California Tribal Coalition Launches Push to Get Sports Betting on Ballot

A powerful coalition of California tribal operators wants to put sports betting on the ballot.

California sports betting

California’s tribal operators’ sudden push for sports betting is a strategic move to freeze the cardrooms and the legislature out of the equation. (Image: John Locher/AP)

The tribes have previously expressed resistance to legalizing sports books. But The LA Times reports that on Wednesday, a group of 18 operators filed papers with the state attorney general’s office seeking approval for their sports betting initiative, which would kick start a signature-gathering campaign.

“Californians should have the choice to participate in sports wagering at highly regulated, safe, and experienced gaming locations,” Mark Macarro, chairman of Pechanga, said in a statement.

“We are very proud to see tribes from across California come together for this effort, which represents an incremental but important step toward giving Californians the freedom to participate in this new activity in a responsible manner,” he added.

Warring Stakeholders

Of course, this is as much about sports betting as it is about the complex politics of California’s schismatic gaming sector.

It’s significant that the coalition’s proposal comes after the introduction of a sports betting bill by Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced).

That bill would also let voters decide the issue, but would include California’s cardrooms in a future market, as well as its tribal casinos.

Tribes are resistant to any form of commercial gaming expansion, especially if it is perceived to infringe on the regional exclusivity on casino gaming that’s enshrined in their compacts.

The California Nations Indian Gaming Association’s (CNIGA) previous opposition to sports betting was largely a protest against what it saw as the state’s inaction towards the card clubs offering so-called “house banked” games.

These are variations of games like blackjack and Pai Gow Poker, which the tribes believe are too close to class III casino gaming for comfort.

Tribal Power

Now, the tribes are gambling that they can block the legislative bill and get their initiative on the ballot, which naturally excludes the card clubs from the equation.

Because gambling expansion bills are tax related, they need two-thirds of the legislature to pass in California, and it’s very difficult to get that kind of majority when the tribes are in opposition.

In 2018, there were 63 tribes operating 73 casinos in California of varying size. But collectively, they employ tens of thousands of people and contribute hundreds of millions to the state each year.

That means they have some clout in Sacramento.

But so do the cardrooms, as we were pointedly reminded yesterday.

Holy Grail

The tribes would need to collect the signatures of 997,139 registered California voters to succeed with the ballot initiative. But since millions pass through their doors each year, that might not be a problem.

California is the sports betting Holy Grail, and would quickly become the biggest market in America if legalized, worth billions per year. But the legislature wants the cardrooms involved in order to maximize tax revenues.

The hostile standoff between the tribes and the clubs has been the cause of the state’s repeated failure to legalize and regulate online poker over the last 12 years.

Sports betting may be no different. But it now has the backing of the tribes, and that’s a major start.

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