Casino odds change on Beacon Hill for Wampanoag Tribe

Casino odds change on Beacon Hill for Wampanoag Tribe

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The Massachusetts Senate version of a gaming bill that emerged Friday from a legislative committee changed the odds for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

The Senate budget committee endorsed legislation Friday that calls for casinos in three regions of the state, eliminates an earlier provision setting aside a license for an Indian tribe, and allows no slot machines at the state’s four racetracks.

The Senate bill, up for debate yesterday, divides the state into three gambling zones: Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex and Worcester counties; Norfolk, Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, Nantucket and Dukes counties; and Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin and Berkshire counties.

Licensing fees for casino developers in regions 1 and 2 are set at $75 million. In the third region, the fee is $50 million. In the first two regions, developers would be required to invest $600 million in capital construction. In the west, the floor would be $400 million.

The bill differs starkly from the House version, which calls for two casinos and four “racinos” — 750 slot machines at two horse racing tracks and two former dog racing tracks.

The Senate bill also departs from a draft version floated last week that mandated one license for an Indian tribe.

Senate budget chairman Steven Panagiotakos said the earlier bill was a draft. “We were looking for feedback, and the feedback we got was that it would be more beneficial for the Commonwealth if there was an open and robust competition,” Mr. Panagiotakos told the State House News Service.

The legislation gives the governor authorization to enter into a contract with a federally recognized Native American Tribe with the power to give a permanent license and “regional exclusivity” if the tribe is granted a gaming license and agrees to abide by other requirements, according to a bill summary.

If a gambling bill clears the Senate, as expected, a conference committee would be charged with forging a compromise.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who has largely let the Legislature drive a move toward expanded gambling this session, signaled Monday that he hopes to see final action on a bill by July 31, the scheduled end of formal sessions this year. “I want a good, fair, comprehensive, and thoughtful gaming bill and I want it by the end of the session,” Patrick told three reporters after meetings with Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. “I think the Senate president and the speaker do too.”

Mr. Patrick has supported bringing casinos to Massachusetts but has raised doubts about installing slot machines at the state’s existing and former racetracks, refusing to rule out a veto if slots are included in the final bill. Mr. Patrick was responding to a question about tactics described by gambling opponents, who said Monday they hope the Senate’s bill — up for debate this week — differs sharply from the House’s final version, leading to unsolvable gridlock.

As the legislative jockeying continued on Beacon Hill, in a Tuesday afternoon telephone conversation, Cape and Islands state representative Tim Madden said he voted against the House version of the bill when it was first presented and has seen nothing in the Senate bill to convince him that the benefits of casino gambling would outweigh the detriments.

Representative Madden questioned whether there is enough business for everyone to get into the casino business. “I just don’t think it is going to be the income source that people predicted it is going to be,” he said.

He said the spur behind the most recent casino effort is the economy, but the fundamental issue is that there are better ways to generate economic development than casino gambling.

Senator Robert O’Leary, who represents the Cape and Islands, has been equally opposed to casino gambling. But they appear to be fighting against the legislative tide.

Asked if he thinks a casino bill would pass this session, Mr. Madden said, “Yes.” He noted the legislative stars appear to be aligned in favor of gaming, with leaders in both the House and Senate and the governor supporting some type of bill.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag are locked in competition with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which has moved aggressively to position itself to cash in on a casino and is considered the favorite by pundits.

Federal law requires states that allow gaming to negotiate gaming agreements with federally recognized tribes and gives broad rights to those tribes to construct gambling facilities on lands held “in trust” for those tribes by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Unlike the Mashpee tribe, the Aquinnah tribe owns land held in trust, but that land is in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard.

Naomi Carney, chairman of the Wampanoag Gaming Corporation, said the tribe is currently waiting to see what the final gaming bill will look like once Senate and House leaders agree on legislation.

“We are in a holding pattern,” she told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday. “We are just waiting like everybody else.”

The Cape-based Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head are both seeking to build a resort style casino in southeastern Mass. Earlier versions of the Senate bill allocated one of three gaming licenses to a Massachusetts’ federally recognized tribe but that provision was removed in order to provide a level playing field.

“We are weighing all our options,” Ms. Carney said. “When the final bill comes out of Beacon Hill then we will know more or less what direction we are going because these bills change so frequently.”

Ms. Carney noted that the Aquinnah Wampanoag have been working to secure a casino for 15 years. Adopting a football analogy, she said, “I have seen it on the 5-yard line, I’ve seen it on the 15-yard line, I’ve seen it on the 30-yard line, forever. Now we’re back to the 1-yard line.”

According to a published report in yesterday’s Cape Cod Times, the Aquinnah Wampanoag has created a Facebook page to keep the public informed of its progress as part of a broader effort to build a casino on a 240-acre piece of property it has under agreement in Fall River off Interstate 195.

“We want to be good partners with the state leaders, the city of Fall River and the people of Massachusetts,” Ms. Carney, said in a press release. “That’s why we have launched a Facebook page to help keep everyone informed about our proposal and progress.”