A handful of wealthy California gaming tribes – which together gave nearly $130 million to political causes in 2008 – rank as the nation’s largest special-interest donors to campaigns, according to a study released Monday.
Four of the state’s Indian gaming interests made the top 10 list of donors, which also included public employee unions and business groups, according to the report by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, two of the nation’s leading watchdog groups.
The study underscores the power of California’s tribal gaming industry – particularly its successful campaign in February 2008 to approve ballot measures that allowed four tribes to install 17,000 new slot machines.
Political experts said the tribes are likely to flex their political muscle in next year’s statewide election, when voters will choose a governor and decide measures to reform state government.
Two big contributors
Nearly two-thirds of the contributions from the state’s gaming tribes came from two Riverside County tribes.
The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians of Temecula donated $44 million to campaigns last year, most of them at the state level, putting it at No. 2 on the national list of largest political donors behind the National Education Association.
Fourth on the list was the Morongo Band of Mission Indians of Banning, which put more than $39 million into political coffers last year, the report said.
Tenth on the list was the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Riverside County, which donated more than $22 million. Another California tribe, the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, was also a major giver, donating more than $7 million, the study showed.
The four gaming tribes gave most of their money to the Coalition to Protect California’s Budget and Economy, a group that successfully advocated passage of four ballot measures – Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97 – seen as beneficial to the tribes.
Under the tribes’ agreements with the state, the tribes began paying the state government a larger share of gaming revenue in exchange for the additional slot machines.
Two other tribes – the United Auburn Indian Community of Auburn Rancheria of Rocklin (Placer County) and the Pala Band of Mission Indians of Pala (San Diego County) – donated $12 million each as part of Tribes for Fair Play, a coalition that tried to defeat the gaming measures last year.
State political observers say Indian gaming tribes will be major political players in 2010.
"The casino revenues have been a boon to both individual Indians and to California politics," said Barbara O’Connor, professor of political communication at Cal State Sacramento.
In 2010, she said, the tribes "will be weighing in" on the governor’s race as well as reform measures calling for a constitutional convention and an end to the two-thirds vote needed to approve budgets and taxes in the state.
Added political scientist Michael Semler of Cal State Sacramento: "The Indian gaming tribes will matter as long as the state needs revenue and the voters are unwilling to raise taxes."
Patrick Dorinson, a Republican strategist and consultant to the Morongo Band, said Indian interests finally have the power and money to match what other major business interests have done for generations in California politics.
"For 150 years, the (tribes) sat on the sidelines of the debate about their fate," Dorinson said. "Now they have the ability to stand up and defend their rights and their sovereignty. And they’re not asking for anything more than other business people want – to be heard."
But consumer groups say the trend is disturbing – and should be monitored carefully.
"The adage that you’ve got to spend money to make money applies in politics as much as anywhere," says Doug Heller, who heads Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica. "Where big money is at stake – and with gambling rights, it’s huge money at stake – the campaign contributions flow faster than the Colorado."
Top U.S. political donors of 2008
1 National Education Association, $56.3 million
2 Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians, $44 million
3 Penn National Gaming, $40.6 million
4 Morongo Band of Mission Indians, $39.1 million
5 Service Employees International Union, $35.7 million
6 National Association of Realtors, $23.7 million
7 Lakes Entertainment, $25.7 million
8 Tribes for Fair Play, No on 94, 95, 96 & 97, $24.8 million
9 Act Blue (liberal policy group), $23.2 million
10 Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, $22.1 million
— View the top 10,000 state and federal donors at: www.followthemoney.org.
Source: National Institute on Money in State Politics
E-mail Carla Marinucci at [email protected]