Rosenberg says Wampanoag threat to state gambling

By Jason MarderGazette

Thursday, September 30, 2010

BOSTON – State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, warns that unless the Legislature renews its stalled efforts to expand gambling in Massachusetts, moves by an Indian tribe could cost the state millions in licensing and tax revenues.

“They could begin gambling on their land and operate without taxation, regulation or state interference at the level that state law currently allows,” Rosenberg said Wednesday.

Rosenberg said he is worried about an application submitted by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to the U.S. Department of Interior in 2007. If approved, approximately 300 acres of land in Fall River would be exempt from state and local regulation and taxes, leaving the tribe free to develop the area for a Class I or II gaming facility.

Rosenberg said a Class II facility could include between 1,000 to 5,000 electronic bingo machines that closely resemble slot machines.

Cedric Cromwell, the tribal chairman of the Wampanoag, said in an email that the tribe is confident its application will be approved. Once that happens, he said, the tribe could break ground almost immediately.

“There has been great momentum on this in Washington, and we have received incredible support from elected officials here in Massachusetts,” Cromwell wrote.

Rosenberg, a sponsor of the state Senate’s original casino bill, said Cromwell’s optimism is well-founded.

He warned the state would be the loser if the Wampanoag tribe is able to build a gaming facility before the Legislature acts on its own casino plan.

The 1998 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act classifies gaming in three ways. Class I is defined as social gaming for minimal prizes. Class II could include bingo or card games played without a “house.” Class III is considered casino-style gaming.

“This is not just guessing, these are comments based on factual and continuous updates from people who are in the position to know what is happening in Washington and what is likely to happen,” Rosenberg wrote.

The land-to-trust program arises from the historic treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government. Between 1887 and 1934, the U.S. government took more than 90 million acres – or nearly two-thirds of the reservation lands – from tribes. The land-into-trust program was established to compensate tribes for their lost land.

Although tribal governments are required to consult with local governments about gambling plans, trust lands fall under tribal government and are usually not subject to state laws.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe recently received support for it land-into-trust application from U.S. Sen. John Kerry, and Rep. Barney Frank and Rep. James McGovern of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. Fall River Mayor William Flanagan also supported the application.

Cromwell did not rule out continued negotiations with the state.

“We believe that our project can be a benefit to not only the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, but the Fall River area and the commonwealth as a whole by providing revenue and jobs,” he wrote. “However, we have certain rights as a federally recognized tribe that we will continue to pursue in lieu of the commonwealth passing expanded gaming.”

Not everyone believes the application should be approved.

Kathleen Norbut, former head of United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts, cited a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that she said should block the Wampanoag application.

That decision settled a dispute between the Narragansett Tribe and the state of Rhode Island over whether the tribe had to comply with local building codes.

The decision reversed the Department of Interior’s interpretation of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, ruling that its secretary did not have authority to place land into trusts for tribes under state jurisdiction prior to 1934. Members of Congress have introduced legislation to change the federal law. If passed, the law would reinstate the Department of Interior secretary’s authority.

In a June 2010 memorandum, Secretary Kenneth Salazar said the Department of Interior would “move forward with processing applications and requests for gaming on Indian lands within the context of objective statutory and regulatory criteria.”

Rosenberg, who voted for the Legislature’s compromise casino bill, said that the lost revenue from Massachusetts residents gambling outside the state, the current unemployment rate and the recession – along with potential competition from the Wampanoag tribe – are all factors that should drive momentum to revisit the legislation.

He promised that an expanded gaming bill would be back in the Legislature.

House Speaker Robert Deleo’s office has refused to say if he would call the House back into formal session to revisit a gaming bill, but Senate President Therese Murray ruled out the possibility of a lame-duck session following the Nov. 2 election.

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