By Matt Murphy
BOSTON — New Bedford lawmakers, who previously warned legislative leaders against giving preferential treatment to Native American tribes for a gambling license, are calling a provision in a leadership-backed gambling bill a “fair compromise” that gives tribes a limited window to negotiate a deal with the state.
The gambling legislation released this week by the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies would sanction up to three regional resort-style casinos and it would give Native American tribes in southeastern Massachusetts until July 31, 2012 to purchase land and negotiate a revenue sharing compact with Gov. Deval Patrick.
“I think it’s quite an endeavor to be met by July 31. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but overall I think it’s a small window of opportunity. I think it’s fair that way. I can live with that,” Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Beford) told the News Service.
That compact also would have to be approved by the Legislature.
Should the July 31 deadline pass without a compact, a newly created state Gaming Commission would be authorized to consider proposals for a casino from commercial developers in the southeast region – which includes Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable and Dukes counties – as long as the commission doesn’t anticipate the tribe having land taken into federal trust by Congress.
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is actively pursuing land in southeastern Massachusetts to purchase outside of their federal recognized tribal lands for a casino that would clear the way for the tribe to begin negotiating with the Patrick administration for a license.Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a statement on Tuesday that the tribe looks forward to the bills “timely passage and to negotiating a compact with the Governor so we can put people to work as soon as possible.”
Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat and proponent of expanded gambling who is running for mayor in his home city, called the proposed process for Native American tribes “an improvement” from the gambling bill that nearly became law last year and left the issue of tribal gaming more “vague.”
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.
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.” They 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.”
Koczera on Wednesday said he was pleased with the provisions in the bill dealing with tribal gaming because it ensured that the construction of a casino wouldn’t get tied up for years.
“Our concern was not to hold the regional casino in abeyance pending some approval process in Washington,” he said. “The fact that we will have a casino, one that involves the Native Americans or not, means that we will have employment opportunities.”
Koczera said he sees no reason why the gambling bill “doesn’t become law sometime next month.” Speaker Robert DeLeo said on Tuesday he was planning a mid-September floor debate in the House and said he was “fairly confident” it could be law by the end of October.
Cabral said he felt the best and fastest option to bring a casino to the region would be for a tribe to partner with commercial developer, but reiterated that he “could live with” the process as proposed.
“This is not an issue of should it be a tribe or a commercial developer,” Cabral said. “This is about the region being able to pursue or have a casino located there the same way the other regions will be able to do.”
According to Cabral, there are currently two commercial developers eyeing waterfront property in New Bedford for a future casino, including the site of the former NStar electric plant that would require an estimated $50 million in brownfield remediation clean up before it could be developed. New Bedford residents have also passed two referendums indicating the city’s support for a casino.
Still, Cabral said if a casino were to be built outside of New Bedford he would support that effort.
“I would rather have a casino in New Bedford, obviously. It would be a more direct impact. But I think a casino in southeastern Mass. overall would benefit also lots of folks in New Bedford. People would be able to secure jobs in the construction period and the operation period. We have a wonderful workforce in New Bedford ready and able to work,” Cabral said.
Cabral said he plans to continue reviewing the gaming legislation, which is expected to get a favorable recommendation from the committee to advance on Friday, but said he may seek to clarify some of the tribal language.
He said it remained unclear whether a tribe that successfully purchases land and negotiates a compact with the state would be required eventually to have that land place into trust under Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, an action that would require Congressional approval.
Copyright 2011 The Patriot Ledger. Some rights reserved
Aug 24, 2011 @ 06:30 PM
By Matt Murphy