Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mashpee Wampanoag Indians Threaten State Prior To Massachusetts Senate Casino Debate

By Ken Davison
Feather News

Upon hearing that one of the three casinos proposed in a Massachusetts Senate bill will not be awarded to an Indian tribe, as previously proposed, the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe said the Tribe would sidestep any state plans by building a casino under federal Indian gaming laws and not pay the state any fees.

Mashpee chairman Cedric Cromwell said, "If the state gives a commercial license to another casino operator, we won’t pay the state a cent when we build a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts once expanded gaming is approved. We will destroy the competition because we won’t pay licensing fees or taxes and we will provide a great player experience with more wins."

The Massachusetts Senate will begin debating the casino bill tomorrow. Up until last Friday, one of the three casinos proposed in a draft of the Senate bill was to be set aside for an Indian Tribe. Massachusetts is home to two federally recognized Indian tribes - the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Aquinnah Wampanoag.

While Cromwell's rhetoric seems fiery, he is only stating the tribe's rights under federal Indian gaming laws and the effect it could have on the state and on those groups who are awarded the state's commercial casino licenses.

Under federal Indian gaming law, a tribe can operate the same type of gambling games allowed under the laws of the state where the tribe's reservation is location. Once casino gambling becomes state law in Massachusetts, which is likely, then the Mashpee Wampanoags will be allowed to operate a casino on reservation land. The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, on the other hand, may have ceded some of their sovereign rights in a land settlement deal that state officials say requires the Aquinnahs to abide by state laws and codes.

A major obstacle was thrown into the Mashpee Wampanoag's path last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government cannot add land to a tribe's reservation base if that tribe was recognized by the federal government after 1934. Had it not been for that landmark ruling, which revolved around land taken into trust for the Narragansett Tribe, a Mashpee casino would probably have been a slam dunk.

Aside from the Supreme Court decision, reservation shopping - where a tribe seeks out new reservation land advantageous for a casino such as near a major highway or population center - has come under intense scrutiny over the past decade. The U.S. Department of the Interior, which is the federal agency with the authority to take land into trust as reservation land on behalf of an Indian tribe, may deny an application if the land is too far from the tribe's reservation or if the application lacks local support.

The Mashpee Tribe previously asked the Interior Department to take land in Middleboro into trust but has since changed their application to Fall River. The Tribe also changed its backers from the initial team that included the South African casino management team that opened and managed the Mohegan Sun to an affiliate of the Malaysian company that financed Foxwoods casino.

Currently, the Massachusetts Senate bill calls for three casinos - one in Western Massachusetts, one in Eastern/Central Massachusetts and one in Southeastern Massachusetts. The Senate bill does not make any provision for slot machines at racetracks while the Massachusetts House bill, passed in April, calls for two casinos and 750 slot machines at the state's four racetracks.

Once the Senate approves a version of expanded gambling legislation, which could happen before the end of this month, the Senate and House would need to iron out the differences in their bills before sending it to the the governor for his signature.