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500 Gambling Machines Debut at Casino San Pablo By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday August 02, 2005

Casino San Pablo began its latest incarnation Monday as a gambling Mecca where bettors can try their luck against fast-playing machines. 

Though they’re not the 5,000 full-scale slot machines originally proposed in a never-ratified agreement between the Lytton Band of Pomos and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 500 electronic bingo machines are just as noisy. 

“People are here playing, and it’s not overcrowded,” said Doug Elmets, the tribe’s Sacramento-based consultant who was on hand for the first day of machine play. 

The bingo machines that greeted gamblers Monday require no authorization, although critics claim that the relatively fast-paced play compared to conventional cross-out-the-numbers-on-a-card play make them more like standard slots. The machines are rated as Class II. 

Las Vegas style slots, including the popular poker machines, are rated as Class III gambling machines and require state authorization to install. 

On the same day the machines opened for play at the casino, Contra Costa County officials unveiled a study focusing on the potential negative impacts of a casino with 2,200 regulation slot machines in San Pablo (see related story), a move denounced by Elmets. 

“It’s ironic that they would issue it on the same day they expected us to open with 500 bingo machines,” said Elmets. 

Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-East Bay) said Friday that the Class II and Class III machines are functionally identical. 

“The experience is the same, they look the same, they have the same lights and whistles, each pull of the handle is a gamble, and they have the same results in terms of crime, blight, traffic congestion, domestic violence and bankruptcies,” she said.  

Armando Viramontes, her casino affairs specialist, said Friday, “We understand there will be 500 machines to begin with, but it could go as high as 1,000, 2,000 or even higher.” 

The installation of 500 machines in what was once a traditional card room is perceived by some as an interim measure, pending a final decision on the tribe’s plans to install a full-scale slot machine and card game casino.  

The Lyttons, who own the East Bay’s largest gambling hall, had signed a pact with Gov. Schwarzenegger that would have given them rights to run a super-casino, offering more slots than any gambling palace on the Las Vegas Strip or Glitter Gulch in exchange for a quarter of the machines’ profits. 

Legislative opposition killed that plan, and the tribe pulled a second proposal for half that number when legislative opposition hardened. The tribe has not, however, renounced slots, and could refloat the proposal later. 

Legislation moving forward in both houses of Congress could torpedo those plans and force the removal of Lytton’s bingo slots, said Viramontes.  

A bill by Sen. Diane Feinstein now on the Senate floor to revoke a special amendment that backdated the Lyttons acquisition of the San Pablo casino stands a good chance of passing, said Viramontes. 

If signed into law, the measure would force the Lyttons to undergo a more rigorous approval process and would strip them of their right to operate gambling machines of any sort in the interim. 

Elmets said that the backdated grant to the Lyttons was an effort “to address wrongs done the tribe decades ago,” adding that passage of the bill to reverse it “would be an unjust taking of tribal rights without just compensation,” something the tribe would certainly appeal. 

Another measure introduced in the House Monday by Rep. Charlie Dent (D-PA) would restrict casinos to lands immediately adjacent to existing reservations and limit acquisition of new sites to land formally acknowledged as tribal habitat after it became part of the United States.  

The addition of machines is expected to result in increased play, and the casino has ended its policy of allowing employees of the adjacent Doctor’s Hospital to park in their lot. 

Tribal publicist Elmets acknowledged that the lot had been closed to hospital employees last week “because the casino plans to use the lot for its patrons.” 

The hospital has responded by restriping their lots, adding 40 more spaces, and by calling for workers to carpool. 

“This could just be the beginning of the negative impacts on the hospital and people who need to reach the only emergency room within 25 miles,” Hancock said.