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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe wants talks on casino

Wampanoags seeking deal with governor

'We'd like to start the negotiations and get the ball rolling.' - Shawn W. Hendricks Sr., Mashpee Wampanoag chairman . "We'd like to start the negotiations and get the ball rolling." - Shawn W. Hendricks Sr., Mashpee Wampanoag chairman.
By Matt Viser Globe Staff / September 3, 2008

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is planning to formally ask Governor Deval Patrick today to negotiate a compact for a $1 billion resort casino in Middleborough, an overture that could reignite the gambling debate and eventually clear 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 probably speed approval and allow the tribe to offer bigger jackpots and more games, including blackjack and craps, while giving the state a share of casino revenues.

"We'd like to start the negotiations and get the ball rolling," tribal chairman Shawn W. Hendricks Sr. said yesterday in an interview. "I see no reason why the state wouldn't sit and talk with us."

Tribal officials are hoping to negotiate 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 spring. It would be similar to the deals struck by Connecticut for the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. The billions earned by those casinos have proved to be alluring for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, as well as Patrick and some other Massachusetts officials who see legalized gam bling as a way to help pay for state needs such as road repairs.

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

The move could give Patrick fresh ammunition if he decides to revive his effort to persuade the Legislature to license three casinos in Massachusetts. Patrick has contended that since the federal government might approve the tribe's casino regardless of the state's position, Massachusetts might as well embrace gambling, control the business, and reap a share for state coffers.

Administration officials declined to comment yesterday before 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 have its federal lands taken into trust. The governor was hesitant in June 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 between the tribe and the governor would probably also need the approval of the 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, game tables, a 1,500-room hotel, and a host of amenities including a golf course.

Achieving the next step, getting federal approval to place its land in trust, can take several years, but tribal officials think 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 said it would upgrade Route 44, a $170 million expense.

Most significantly, the negotiations would determine what percentage of 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 Mashpees say in the letter that, even if the state does not approve a deal, it plans to pursue its federal rights under the Indian Gaming Act to develop a casino with bingo-style slots. Those slots, called lass 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 jobs and bringing in state revenue. His legislation was voted down by the House in March, but the governor is 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 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 was not concerned about declining slot revenues and downplayed the argument that New England's gambling market was 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 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, R.I.

In a case signed onto by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the state of Rhode Island contends that federal law prevents the US government from taking land into trust for tribes recognized after the 1934 Indian Re- organization Act. The Narragansett tribe was federally recognized in 1983.

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

Matt Viser can be reached at