California Gaming Association Tells Gov. Newsom to Close Tribal Casinos, Claiming Health Trumps Sovereignty

Posted on: July 14, 2020, 08:45h. 

Last updated on: July 14, 2020, 12:42h.

The California Gaming Association (CGA) has asked Governor Gavin Newsom (D) to order the closure of tribal casinos in the state. The trade body — which represents California’s card clubs, but not its tribal casinos — believes the state has the power to shut down the casinos during a health emergency, despite the tribes’ sovereign status.

tribal gaming casino shutdown Gavin Newsom
CGA President Kyle Kirkland believes the language in the tribes’ compacts precludes them from conducting Class III gaming during a deadly pandemic. (Image: YouTube)

The letter from the CGA comes as Newsom ordered an immediate halt to all indoor activities at restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, zoos, and museums in response to a 20 percent spike in coronavirus infections in California in the past week. The state recorded more than 8,000 new cases on Sunday.

California’s numerous card rooms are included in the order, but not its tribal casinos, which are not subject to the laws of the state. Native American-owned venues began reopening against Newsom’s wishes after their self-imposed lockdown in mid-May.

Political Hot Potato

But according to CGA President Kyle Kirkland, Newsom’s hands are not tied on the issue. Kirkland believes a clause in the tribes’ compacts — the gaming agreement they each sign with the state — suggests the tribal sovereignty does not supersede public health.

It states:

“The Tribe shall not conduct Class III Gaming in a manner that endangers the public health, safety, or welfare, provided, however, that nothing herein shall be construed to make applicable to the Tribe any state laws or regulations governing the use of tobacco.”

When public health and safety is at risk there is something you can do about it,” Kirkland said. “This is a contract, right? This is an agreement between the state and the tribes to offer gaming within our state. So the deal is you need to adhere to the contract, and if the governor feels like there’s a real health and safety risk, we need pull this back. My read of it is that he can do it.”

Whether the governor would try to do it is another matter. The issue of tribal sovereignty is incredibly politically sensitive. Moreover, any effort by the state to impose its will on tribal gaming would be swiftly met with multiple federal lawsuits.

Sports Betting Spat

The tribes and card clubs have long been at odds with one another, primarily over the clubs’ so-called California Games, which ape the casino games on which the tribes hold exclusivity — too closely, according to the tribes.

A recent legislative effort to legalize sports betting in California fizzled out last week because the tribes refused to endorse it or to compromise with the clubs.

Instead, the tribes want to get a measure on the ballot that, if approved, would legalize sports betting at their casinos, while freezing the card clubs out of the picture completely.

“Our position is, if we are all in this together, we are all in this together,” wrote Kirkland to Newsom.

It’s a position the tribes refuse to share.