10:00 PM PDT on Wednesday, April 21, 2010

By JIM MILLER
Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – An Assembly committee gave quick approval Wednesday to the latest legislative attempt to free up $30 million in tribal casino revenue for Inland communities and other parts of the state.

But it’s unclear whether the proposal to restore what supporters call the “lost year” of casino-mitigation funding will find support where it’s needed most: the Schwarzenegger administration.

“It’s long overdue. It’s something we all need,” said the measure’s author, Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley. The Assembly Governmental Organization Committee unanimously passed the measure.

The money in question is the special distribution fund. Created by the 1999 compacts that authorized Las Vegas-style gambling on tribal land, the account has received hundreds of millions of dollars over the years from gaming tribes, including several with large casinos in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The fund has helped pay for aid to tribes with small or no casinos, problem-gambling programs and government regulators.

In addition, the money has provided grants to local governments to pay for police cars, traffic lights and other projects to ease the impacts of tribal gambling.

Inland agencies have received at least $85 million in grants since 2003, with most of the money going to public safety departments.

But the fund has been a source of disagreement between the Legislature and governor’s office.

In 2005, Schwarzenegger vetoed $20 million for local governments, claiming they had failed to report how they were spending previous grants. The money eventually was restored.

In 2007, the governor vetoed $30 million for local governments. The action came after a critical state audit.

Last year, Schwarzenegger signed a bill addressing those concerns. But there was no money to make up for the “lost year.”

Meanwhile, the distribution fund — long an oasis of fiscal well-being in state government — is rapidly running out of money.

The fund will have an estimated balance of $117.2 million in June and a balance of $84.7 million in June 2011. Officials say it is on pace to be empty by mid-decade.

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