One Wampanoag tribe could cash in from renewed gaming push

One Wampanoag tribe could cash in from renewed gaming push

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— File photo by Susan Safford

House and Senate leaders on Tuesday embraced an expanded gaming bill that would license three resort-style casinos in three regions of Massachusetts and one slot facility bid competitively, in a proposal that closely resembles the plan Gov. Deval Patrick agreed to last year before gambling talks collapsed.

The bill divides the state into three regions, each of which would be eligible for no more than one resort casino: a Western Massachusetts region that includes Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin, and Berkshire Counties; a Southeastern Massachusetts region that includes Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, Nantucket, and Dukes Counties; and a third wide-ranging region that includes Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk and Worcester Counties.

Under the bill, Native American tribes, presumably from the southeastern Massachusetts region, would have until July 31, 2012 to first purchase land and then negotiate a compact with the state to build a casino and share revenue in exchange for that region’s license without having to wait for approval of federal land-in-trust for recognized tribes.

One provision of the bill would appropriate $5 million for the governor to negotiate and execute a compact with a federally recognized Native American tribe in Massachusetts.

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 bill, a 155-page plan prepared by Legislative leaders and released by the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, would require casino developers to invest no less than $500 million into a proposed resort, and pay an upfront licensing fee of $85 million, the State House News Service reported.

The 21 members of the committee have been asked to vote on the bill by Friday at 5 p.m., setting the stage for consideration by the full Legislature next month.

Applicants for casino licenses must pay a $350,000 up-front fee to compete. Casino operators would pay a daily fee of 25 percent on gross gaming revenue, while the slot parlor operator would be required to pay the state a 40 percent tax on gross gaming revenues, and an additional 9 percent into a racehorse development fund.

The bill would also establish a division of gaming enforcement within the attorney’s general’s office, and a five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission to oversee expanded gambling comprising five commissioners appointed by a majority vote of the governor, attorney general and treasurer for five-year terms.

The bill’s single slot parlor would require the successful bidder to pay a $25 million licensing fee and make a capital investment of no less $125 million for the right to operate up to 1,250 slot machines.

Of the tax revenue the state receives from casinos, 25 percent would support local aid for cities and towns, 15 percent would support transportation infrastructure, 14 percent would support education aid for cities and towns, 10 percent would bolster the state’s rainy day fund, 10 percent would support an economic development fund, 10 percent would be used for debt reduction activities managed by the state treasurer and administration, 6.5 percent would be used to support communities that house or neighbor casinos, 5 percent would go to a public health trust fund, 2 percent would support “local capital projects,” 2 percent would support the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and 0.5 percent would support tourism.

The bill was released to a nearly empty capitol, with most lawmakers still enjoying their month-long August recess and Gov. Deval Patrick entering his fourth straight week away from the capitol.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray quickly endorsed the proposal, issuing a joint statement saying that the proposal “builds on similar legislation debated last year in the House and Senate.

“Through public analysis and deliberation, it is our goal to pass a bill that is responsible to the public and does what is best for our economic interests,” the leaders said. “We support this bill and believe that it provides a strongly regulated and commercially desirable framework for establishing a gaming industry in Massachusetts. Expanded gaming will create thousands of construction and service jobs and support our ongoing efforts to create and retain jobs in the Commonwealth. Further, it will serve as a source of new revenue for Massachusetts and help our economy grow.”

While House and Senate lawmakers worked to draft this legislation, sources indicated that Patrick’s office did not have a direct role in writing the bill, but did offer input, suggesting the sides are hoping to avoid a repeat of the brinksmanship that ultimately caused the bill to fail last year.

“If done right, expanded gaming in Massachusetts can create jobs, generate new revenue, and spur other economic growth in the state,” Patrick said in a statement. “The bill being considered by the Joint Legislative Committee on Economic Development places appropriate limits on the expansion of gaming, requires open and transparent bidding, maintains a voice for local communities, and provides resources to address public health and safety — all principles I have insisted be a part of any gaming bill I support.”

Gambling opponents quickly pounced on the inauspicious release — details appeared in the Globe long hours before committee lawmakers had seen a version of the bill — as evidence of a secretive process run amok.

“Today’s release of all new casino legislation signals yet another milestone in Beacon Hill’s concerning slide deeper into a closed-door culture marked by little debate, less dissent, and an even greater likelihood of improper influence,” said former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, a vocal critic of expanded gambling, in a Tuesday morning statement. “We had hoped that public outrage over a string of public corruption cases would have convinced the Governor and legislative leaders to include public review, oversight, and comment on this bill before it came out with their stamp of approval.

“We urge legislators to be more than a rubberstamp to the Big Three” — DeLeo, Murray and Patrick — “and demand a full, independent cost-benefit analysis before they vote to welcome to Massachusetts a predatory industry that will only succeed if more people lose.”