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MORAIN: Gambling interests ante up

  • People play slots at the San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino on the San Manuel Indian Reservation. (Associated Press, 2006)

Money flowing through Sacramento lately can mean only one thing: Gambling is front and center again in the Capitol.

There's lots of talk of tribal sovereignty, reclaiming history and preserving ways of life. Important though all that is, the fight comes down to money, as gambling always does.

Wealthy Indian tribes that already have a monopoly on profitable slot machines in California have developed a far-reaching and self-serving proposal to legalize Internet poker in California.

More immediately, existing casino tribes are battling to block a poor tribe, the North Fork Rancheria, from winning final approval for a casino along Highway 99 in Madera.

The California Senate could vote as early as this week on the compact that would transform the hardscrabble Mono Indian band by authorizing a casino with 2,000 slot machines.

“What it boils down is competition,” Elaine Bethel Fink, chairwoman of the 1,984-member North Fork Rancheria, told me.

The North Fork band of Mono Indians doesn't have money to spread among politicians, not yet. But North Fork's friends do. North Fork's friends include the Las Vegas-based brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who control Station Casinos. Station is the backer of the new Graton Resort & Casino outside Rohnert Park. Hoping to expand in California, Station would manage the North Fork casino.

Station is a nonunion operation in Las Vegas and is embroiled in an organizing fight with Unite-HERE, the union that represents casino employees. That might suggest labor would oppose what Station wants in California. But gambling politics and promises of big money produce odd offspring.

Unite-HERE is aligned with Station in seeking approval of the North Fork casino. The reason is simple: When the North Fork Indians began their quest for riches a decade ago, they agreed that if they ever opened a casino, the workers would be union members.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Bell Gardens Democrat, was planning to head to Vegas after the Senate vote for a weekend fundraiser hosted by Station Casinos, until Sacramento Bee reporter Laurel Rosenhall crashed the party by writing a front-page story about it. Lara canceled the event Tuesday, but could hit up the Fertittas later, as others have done.

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