Panel poised to end tribe's casino exclusivityBy JAY LINDSAY , Associated Press
Apr. 4, 2013 7:55 PM ET
BOSTON (AP) — The state gambling commission appears poised to end the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's exclusive right to develop a casino in southeastern Massachusetts, but it put off a vote Thursday so it could hear from the public one last time.
A majority of the five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission was ready to open up the region to commercial bidders, with chairman Steve Crosby saying delay "is not a wise choice on our part."
Commissioners ultimately deferred to internal concerns the issue wasn't fully hashed out in public and scheduled two more weeks for public comment.
"It will take some powerful comments to change my mind," commissioner James McHugh said.
But the tribe's attorney, Howard Cooper, said the commission has no power to seek regional competitors for the tribe.
Cooper said under a revenue-sharing compact between the tribe and Gov. Deval Patrick, the commission must wait until the federal government decides whether the Wampanoag can have land in Taunton for its $500 million casino project.
"The commission cannot do what it is proposing to do," Cooper said.
The state's 2011 casino law created one license each for three geographic regions and gave the Wampanoag exclusive rights in the southeast. But it also allowed the commission to eventually request commercial bids.
The tribe's would-be competitors say it's time to do that.
To get the needed land, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs must take their proposed casino site into trust for the tribe. But opponents say a U.S. Supreme Court decision makes that impossible because it limits such land-taking to tribes that were federally recognized before mid-1934.
Even if they somehow got the land, opponents say, years of litigation will follow. In the meantime, the struggling southeast region will be missing out on badly needed casino revenues and jobs.
The tribe, which was federally recognized in 2007, argues it can proceed by showing it was under federal jurisdiction as of 1934. It's also detailed numerous milestones it's passed, including winning approval for the project in a local referendum, and laid out a timeline for the federal review that sees their casino opening in 2015.
On Thursday, though, commissioners were skeptical the tribe could move so quickly.
"An outcome favorable to the tribe, I submit, is unclear at best," McHugh said. "And even if it is favorable ... it's unlikely to come soon."
Crosby said the state's compact with the tribe, which is still pending before the legislature, leaves Massachusetts will less money and fewer protections for surrounding communities than a state license would. He also said allowing competition doesn't preclude the Wampanoag from winning the state license.
But the tribe has already indicated if bidders are allowed, it will seek gambling rights solely through the federal government, meaning the state would be shut out of any revenues. That raises the possibility of a Wampanoag gaming facility becoming a fourth Massachusetts casino, which Cooper said clearly wasn't the intent of lawmakers.
One developer, KG Urban Enterprises, has already said it wants to build a casino in New Bedford.
Cooper said commissioners don't just lack authority to invite bidders — something commissioners dispute — they also shouldn't. The revenue-sharing compact works for everyone by providing the state with revenues and the region with economic development and jobs, he said.
"The tribe intends to honor that compact, and will expect that the Commonwealth will ... as well," Cooper said.
He wouldn't comment when asked if the tribe would sue if it lost exclusivity.