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California voters will soon weigh in on sports betting

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The exterior of The Gardens Casino

The Gardens Casino is the economic engine of the city of Hawaiian Gardens in Los Angeles County. Some cities that rely on card room revenue are opposed to proposition 26. Megan Jamerson

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California’s Native American tribes have done a lot with casino revenue, building things like schools and hospitals since voters gave them the exclusive right to Vegas-style gambling in 2000.

“Tribal gaming on our lands has helped pull us out of poverty and pushed us on a path of economic self-sufficiency,” Anthony Roberts, Tribal Chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, told the California Legislature this summer.

Several tribes including Roberts’ are asking voters to pass Proposition 26, which would allow sports gambling on tribal lands and race tracks.  This is one of the latest attempts to legalize sports betting across the country, and it is one of two such initiatives on California’s November ballot.

“It not only benefits tribes, but will bring tens of millions of dollars to the state of California,” said Kathy Fairbanks with the Yes on 26 campaign. The state’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office confirmed that in its analysis of the measure’s financial impact.

The same tribes oppose another measure on the ballot, Proposition 27, that would allow online and mobile sports betting outside tribal lands.

Opponents of Proposition 26 are largely led by card rooms. There are about 80 of them in the state and they generate around $500 million in tax revenue. They say if Proposition 26 passes, it could pose legal threats to card rooms, and many cities rely on those card rooms for their revenue.

Michelle Fernandez, instructor at the Millennium Casino Academy in Los Angeles, demonstrates how table games are played in California’s card rooms. (Megan Jamerson/KCRW)

Card rooms are fine with opening the door to sports betting, said Juan Garza, the spokesman for No on 26. What card rooms are worried about, he said, is a provision tucked into the ballot measure that would allow anyone including tribes to sue card rooms over how table games are played. And because some tribes have tried unsuccessfully in the past to take card rooms to court, card rooms are “just scared of the possibilities,” said Garza.

Cities are also nervous about the long-term economic consequences if the ballot measure passes. There are card rooms in 32 counties in California, and they pay around $100 million a year to the cities where they are located. Some cities have become dependent on that revenue to operate. Take Hawaiian Gardens, a small city in Los Angeles County. Nearly 70% of its revenue comes from the city’s local card room. 

“Talk about all of your eggs being in one basket,” said Shavon Moore-Cage, assistant to the mayor of Hawaiian Gardens. “That card room is the economic engine that makes our city run.” 

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