Mass. lawmakers approve tribal casino compact
BOSTON (AP) — A revised tribal casino compact between the Mashpee Wampanoag and Gov. Deval Patrick was approved Wednesday by the state House, after some lawmakers warned that the tribe faced nearly insurmountable obstacles to developing a resort casino in Taunton.
Under the compact, which passed on a 116-38 vote, the state would likely receive at least 15 percent of the tribe’s gambling revenues if the casino was built. The Senate must also ratify the agreement.
Backers said the deal would protect the state’s interests if the Taunton project goes forward. But opponents said there was no point in approving the state agreement until the tribe showed it can win a key land decision from the federal government.
“We should not vote on a compact until the tribe favorably resolves the land in trust question and there is a certainty of tribal gaming,” argued state Rep. Robert Koczera, D-New Bedford.
Koczera and several other southeast Massachusetts lawmakers said the state should focus on putting a commercial casino in the region so it could more quickly enjoy the same economic benefits from expanded gambling as other parts of the state.
Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, R-Taunton, argued for passage of the compact, calling it an “insurance policy” for the state.
“If we don’t have a compact in place and a tribal casino does go forward in (southeastern Massachusetts), the commonwealth will be entitled to exactly zero dollars,” O’Connell said.
The state’s 2011 casino law originally set aside the southeast region for a federally-recognized Native American tribe that negotiated a compact with the state by July 31, 2012. The Mashpee met that deadline but the original compact was rejected by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which ruled the state’s 21.5 percent share of gambling revenues under the agreement was too high and violated the spirit of Indian gambling laws.
The revised compact, signed by Patrick in March, would also require approval by the bureau. The governor said he “vetted” the new agreement with federal officials prior to submitting it to the Legislature and expected it to pass muster.
But the land question is a potentially tougher hurdle, given a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bars the federal government from taking land into trust for tribes that were not under federal “jurisdiction” before 1934. The Mashpee gained federal recognition in 2007.
The tribe has expressed confidence it can overcome any legal obstacles. Tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell said Wednesday that the House vote keeps the Taunton proposal “on track” to provide jobs and revenue for the state.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted earlier this year to begin accepting casino applications from commercial developers in southeast Massachusetts, in the event the tribe fails to gain traction in the coming months.
KG Urban Enterprises, which has proposed a resort casino on the New Bedford waterfront, has demanded that it be treated the same as applicants from other regions in the state. The company Wednesday called on the Legislature to reject the compact.
“It trades away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from a southeast commercial casino for the mirage of a tribal casino that cannot be built under current federal law,” said Barry Gosin, a principal in KG.