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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, November 16, 2003

Akaka bill could revive question of gambling in Hawai'i

By John Griffin

In California recently, I was struck by the political role played by Indian-sponsored gambling casinos and how the issue could relate to Hawai'i.

I was there during the campaign to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Indian gambling money was in the news because most of it was going to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who sought to replace Davis.

A report from a Washington Post correspondent set the scene this way:

"In California's raucous recall campaign, the gaming tribes have emerged as influential players — they are the most deep-pocketed givers, surpassing even organized labor as the biggest campaign donors this season. But their support comes with a price: Candidates accepting their money open themselves to attacks that Indians will gain even more power in state politics at a time when many voters resent their growing clout."

Bustamante, of course, lost, in part at least because he took so much Indian money. Yet the issue of Indian gambling revenue and political clout — and the backlash against it — will go on under Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger. More on that later.

This is the Hawai'i angle I see: The Akaka bill now struggling to get through Congress would give Hawaiians rights similar to those of American-Indian tribes on the Mainland. But it also has a provision that says it shouldn't lead to Hawaiian gambling rights here.

That's positive for several reasons, including tactical ones. Certainly, the question of gambling in Hawai'i should not cloud the sovereignty issue. Both deserve to be settled on their merits.

But if the Akaka bill is the business of Congress (where it deserves passage), that still leaves the issue of gambling to be settled by all of us here in Hawai'i.

I have long been opposed to legalized gambling here but not for any moral reasons. We all know that much illegal gambling goes on in Hawai'i and half the population seems to fly to Las Vegas every year with much enjoyment and no damage to their souls.

Accepting that, it's not overly hypocritical to be against legalized gambling here because, weighing the pluses and minuses, it seems we are better off without it, and it might open some undesirable doors.

(Note that in Maine, which has racetracks, voters this month cast ballots 2 to 1 against an Indian proposal to build that state's first casino. They did so in good part because people there felt it would hurt Maine's clean and green reputation, maybe a thought for Hawai'i with its relatively wholesome image.)

At the same time, we can recognize that most states have limited kinds of gambling (lotteries, racetracks, card rooms, riverboat casinos, etc.) without selling out their ethical principles. Most campaigns in such states are to reform not eliminate gambling, or gaming as the big-money interests like to sanitize it.

Anyway, let's suppose that some day Hawai'i endorses some form of legal gambling and Hawaiian entitlements survive legal challenges and/or are enhanced by the Akaka bill. Then it seems possible, maybe even legally logical, that some Hawaiians will push for the kind of gambling casino rights Indians enjoy.

That's why it's good to keep an eye on California, where Indian gambling operations have been paying about $130 million annually into two state funds that go mostly to benefit the tribes, including those that do not operate casinos. (On the Mainland, fewer than a third of tribes operate gambling operations, according to the National Indian Gaming Association.)

Schwarzenegger in the campaign promised to renegotiate Indian gambling compacts to get more money (up to $2 billion) for the state. But, while that resonated well with mostly white voters, the issue is complicated, and the tribes are not required by law to come to the table.

On the larger situation, a knowledgeable gambling friend in California, who frequently goes to Las Vegas, wrote me this:

"Indian gambling is a problem. Most gamblers know it's lopsided in favor of their casinos. But the state can't do much about it because the Indians claim they are sovereign. So in Nevada you have a gaming board that cracks down even on big casinos. In California you have no regulation at all. ...

"Historically, every time there was an effort to legalize (casino) gambling in California, the casinos in Nevada teamed up with the churches to defeat it. For a long time, they even blocked horseracing on Sunday."

All this may seem academic for Hawai'i at this point. Still, we can be sure gambling proponents will be back at the state Legislature. Sovereignty is currently at a low point due to post-Sept. 11, 2001 preoccupations, Hawaiian uncertainty and infighting, and a variety of court challenges that will include one against the Akaka bill if it passes.

But it's also possible that somehow these two very different issues that should not be mixed together i gambling and sovereignty — will each be with us for many years ahead and may some day be entwined as they are in other states.

John Griffin, a frequent contributor, is former editor of The Advertiser's editorial pages.