Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Tribes In The Media: Wampanoag Tribe Wants To Begin Official Casino Discussion With State Of Massachusetts

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This installment of The Tribes In The Media is an article in The Boston Globe regarding the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's formal intent to begin negotiating a gaming compact with the State of Massachusetts. A state-tribal compact cannot actually take place until the land slated for the casino is approved as Reservation land by the federal government. Currently, the land is owned by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's investors.

Wampanoag tribe will ask Patrick to open casino talks
By Matt Viser
The Boston Globe
September 2, 2008

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe plans to formally ask Governor Deval Patrick tomorrow to negotiate an agreement for a $1 billion resort casino in Middleborough, an overture that could reignite the gambling debate and possibly pave the way for the state's first casino.

The tribe has already been pursuing a casino through a federal Department of the Interior application. But striking a deal with the state would likely speed approval, permit the tribe to offer bigger jackpots and more games like blackjack and craps, while at the same time giving the state a share of the casino revenues.

“We’d like to start the negotiations and get the ball rolling,” tribal chairman Shawn Hendricks said in an interview today. “I see no reason why the state wouldn’t sit and talk with us.”

Tribal officials are hoping to hammer out a deal with the state over the next several months that, if the necessary approvals from the federal government come through, could allow the tribe to start construction on a massive casino as early as next spring.

It would be similar to the deals struck by Connecticut for the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. The billions earned by those casinos has proved alluring for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, as well as Patrick and some other Massachusetts officials who see legalized gambling as a way to help pay for state needs like repairing roads.

The Mashpee Wampanoag will deliver a seven-page letter, which has been expected for several months and was obtained today by the Globe, to the governor tomorrow and requests that negotiations begin "at the earliest mutually convenient date."

The tribe's request could give Patrick fresh ammunition if he decides to revive his effort to convince the Legislature to license three casinos in Massachusetts, because it would add to the perception that the tribe may one day get its own casino. Patrick has argued that, in that case, the state might as well embrace gambling, control the business, and reap a share for state coffers.

Administration officials declined to comment without seeing the letter.

Under the terms of the federal Indian Gaming Act, the tribe cannot force the state to begin negotiations because it does not yet have its federal lands taken into trust. The governor in June was lukewarm about beginning negotiations until the tribe won placement of its land in federal trust.

“It doesn’t start until they say it starts,” Patrick said. “And there’s not a lot of point in starting until the land-in-trust process is finished...They have expressed an interest in working with us when the time comes."

Any deal negotiated between the tribe and the governor would also likely need the approval of the state Legislature, so the tribe is also sending the letter to Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.

The tribe won federal recognition last year, which set it on course to build a resort casino with 4,000 slot machines, table games, a 1,500-room hotel, and a host of amenities, including a golf course.

Typically, achieving the next step, getting federal approval to place its land in trust, can take several years but the tribe thinks it is on course for approval in the first or second quarter of 2009, according to the letter.

Compact negotiations can become complex, and include discussions over who has jurisdiction over police and fire services on the property, and how traffic would be handled. If a compact is signed, the tribe already says it would upgrade Route 44, a $170 million expense.

Most significantly, the negotiations would determine what percentage of the slot revenues the state would receive. When Connecticut negotiated with its tribes in the early 1990s, the Indians agreed to pay the state 25 percent of slot machine revenue.

For Patrick and the Legislature, choosing not to negotiate with the tribe could carry risks.

The Wampanoag tribe says in the letter that, even if the state does not approve, it is planning to pursue its federal rights under the Indian Gaming Act to develop a casino with bingo-style slots. Those so-called “class two” machines look similar to regular slot machines but are not as popular with gamblers and not as lucrative for casino operators. Upgrading to better machines would require state approval.

“No matter what ultimately happens with the negotiations, please know that it is the Tribe’s intent to operate America’s most successful casino resort in Middleborough,” Hendricks wrote in the letter. “We hope that we can do so in a manner which benefits all of us to the fullest extent possible.”

Patrick filed legislation last year that would have licensed three casinos in Massachusetts, creating new jobs and bringing in new state revenue. His legislation was voted down by the House in March, but he is widely expected to file new legislation when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Still, there are multiple variables that could spell trouble for the tribe.

The Globe reported last week that slot revenues at the two Connecticut casinos and two Rhode Island slot parlors are down over last year, despite adding 1,300 new slot machines in the last year. Slot revenues are also down nationally, according to a recent report from the American Gaming Association.

Hendricks, the tribal chairman, said yesterday in an interview that he wasn’t concerned about declining slot revenues and downplayed the argument that the New England gambling market is saturated.

“It’s the economy,” he said. “We’re not going to stop building houses just because the real estate market is down.”

Another potential hitch is a US Supreme Court case that could prohibit any further land into trust approvals. The case, which will be heard in November, stems from a dispute in Rhode Island over the Narragansett Tribe’s claim of 31-acres in Charlestown.

In the case signed onto by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the state of Rhode Island is arguing that federal law prevents the US government from taking land into trust for tribes recognized after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The Narragansetts became federally recognized in 1983.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston rejected the state's claim in July, but the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.