SE Mass lawmakers want no tribe advantage in casino bid

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Worried that their colleagues might approve expanded gambling legislation that favors Native American tribes in their region, southeastern Massachusetts lawmakers are urging Gov. Deval Patrick and legislative leaders to pass a bill with “no strings attached.”

“We thought it was important to communicate at this stage to all to the parties that are having discussions on the issue that if the proposal is going to be three regional resort casino locations, the southeastern Mass location should not have any string attached,” Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford) said in a phone interview with the State House News Service. “All three locations should be treated equally and all three of them should be competitive through a process of whomever has the best proposal.”

Mr. Cabral and four other Democrats from the region — Rep. Robert Koczera of New Bedford, Rep. Kevin Aguiar of Fall River, Rep. Christopher Markey of Dartmouth, and Rep. Paul Schmid of Westport — signed a letter late last month to the governor, Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray and the lawmakers chairing the economic development committee asking that they ensure “competitive bidding in an open and fair process” for the right to operate a casino.

“It’s obviously an issue we have to deal with,” Mr. Aguiar said in a phone interview.

Mr. DeLeo and Mr. Murray have indicated that they anticipate debate next month on expanded gambling legislation and lawmakers are waiting to see details of the legislation that will be put on the House floor.

Lawmakers backed a proposal last year to sanction three resort casinos and two slot parlors at state racetracks, but Gov. Deval Patrick effectively killed the plan when he moved to reject the slot parlors, calling them “no-bid contracts” for wealthy track owners. The bill would have divided the state into three regions and permitted one casino in each. Region 1 included Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, and Worcester Counties; Region 2 included Norfolk Bristol Plymouth, Nantucket, Dukes, and Barnstable Counties; and Region 3 included Hampshire, Hampden Franklin, and Berkshire Counties.

Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which has actively sought approval to run a casino, pending the receipt of land in trust from the federal government, argued that a Native American-run casino would provide “great benefit to all of Southeastern Massachusetts.”

“Our resort casino in Southeastern Massachusetts will be an easy commute for residents of both Fall River and New Bedford. We will employ many of the people in these two great cities who are currently looking for work, both in construction jobs as well as in good, permanent jobs operating the resort casino and associated businesses,” Mr. Cromwell said in a statement to the News Service. “We plan to take a comprehensive, regional approach, working with local businesses to promote travel and tourism and other economic development throughout the region. In addition to negotiating a contract with the Commonwealth that will guarantee revenue from our casino operations, we will negotiate an intergovernmental agreement with the municipality where our resort casino will be located, ensuring much-needed funding for schools, public safety, and infrastructure, among other things.”

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is 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, and has attracted the bulk of news coverage.

The debate over gambling has taken on attributes of poker and chess. Last year, at a State House press conference on June 8, Wampanoag Gay Head leaders said they would construct a gaming facility on their 450 acres on Martha’s Vineyard if the tribe did not receive a state gambling license under the proposed law.

The announcement was largely viewed as a way to attract attention at a time when the state Senate was holding a public hearing on a gaming bill.

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.

The five lawmakers who signed the letter wrote that “providing for a Native American preference for obtaining a casino license would incur significant risk for the Commonwealth.” The predicted “years of litigation” and the triggering of the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act “which would limit the revenue potential that a state license would otherwise offer and cede regulatory control to the federal government.”

“The people of Southeastern Massachusetts, in particular, have worked for decades to bring gaming to our region,” the lawmakers wrote. “It would be a terrible irony to finally open those opportunities to the Commonwealth, but simultaneously handicap Southeastern Massachusetts’ ability to quickly take advantage of them.”