Letter on stationary bearing lawmaker’s name urges readers to sign petition for initiative

Sen. Jim Battin, R-La Quinta, on Wednesday affirmed his support for easing restrictions on tribal gaming — even if it means introducing games like roulette and craps to local casino floors.

Battin expressed his support during a phone interview regarding his endorsement of a letter from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians that called for a gambling expansion.

The letter, which was sent to approximately 2 million Californians, caused a stir because it was printed on letterhead bearing the senator’s name.

It urged readers to sign a petition the tribe is circulating in an effort to place a gambling initiative on a statewide ballot.

Battin said introducing the new games are a natural extension for California Indian casinos, which already offer slot machines and black jack.

“To me, there is no difference between those games,” Battin said. “They are games of chance, it is just that one uses dice and one uses cards and one is with a machine.”

The Agua Caliente tribe needs to gather 600,000 signatures by April 16 to place a gambling initiative on the ballot.

If successful, the initiative would increase the amount of money tribal casinos pay to the state and it would also allow tribes to expand their casino offerings.

“I have a free-market view of this,” said Battin, whose district includes the Coachella Valley, home to six tribal casinos that employ thousands of valley residents.

“The number one industry is tourism,” Battin said. “We have golf. We have casinos. That is not lost on me.”

But gambling critics questioned the motives behind Battin’s embrace of tribal gaming.

Since 1998, casino-owning tribes have donated $1.3 million to Battin, including at least $363,000 from the Agua Caliente tribe.

“Elected officials are expected to show some discretion when using their offices for dubious causes like this initiative,” said Leo McCarthy, a former lieutenant governor, Democrat and gambling critic.

There is no law barring state lawmakers from using official letterhead to support their causes so long as taxpayers don’t foot the bill.

Its not the first time Battin’s close relationship with Indian tribes has been scrutinized.

Last year, Battin announced he would stop soliciting tribes with casinos as clients for his private business as a media buyer.

Battin never broke any laws in that case, either.

But a former chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission called it a “mistake (in) political judgment and ethical judgment.”

Pat Johansen, Battin’s Democratic opponent in the November election, said she opposes the proposed initiative.

The measure, which calls for the state to tax Indian casinos at the corporate rate of 8.8 percent, is of little help to communities coping with casino-fueled growth, she said.

“Giving 8 1/2 percent to the state does not bring a nickel to Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage or all these local districts that are being impacted,” Johansen said.

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