By Gerry Tuoti
Gatehouse News Service
Posted May. 22, 2015
While the competition for the state’s last casino license is down to two proposals, a potential wildcard still looms.
Languishing in red tape for more than three years, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s pursuit of federal approval to build a casino in Taunton remains a major question mark as state gambling regulators examine proposals for commercial casinos in the nearby cities of Brockton and New Bedford.
“I think it’s pretty obvious to everybody that the uncertainty about the tribe’s status contributes to a lack of decisiveness on the part of the interested parties, on the part of the Gaming Commission and on the part of the Legislature when they drafted the bill in the first place,” Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby said.
According to tribal attorney Arlinda Locklear the Mashpee have been making progress behind the scenes with their federal land-into trust application.
“We have good reason to believe significant portions of this document are under final review,” she said.
While the timeline is uncertain, she expects a decision soon.
“I am pretty confident it will be this year,” she said.
The Mashpee are pursuing a casino under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, but lack the necessary sovereign land. They submitted a land-into-trust application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2012 that, if approved, would give them sovereign jurisdiction over land in Mashpee and Taunton.
The tribal casino proposal passed a citywide referendum in Taunton in 2012. Earlier this month, Brockton voters narrowly approved Mass Gaming & Entertainment’s proposal for a casino at the Brockton Fairgrounds. In New Bedford, voters will have their say on KG Urban’s proposed casino in a June 23 referendum.
Assistant Secretary of Interior Kevin Washburn, who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said last week that he does not have a sense of when a decision will be reached on the Mashpee’s land-into-trust application.
“There is an ongoing legal analysis,” he said, after testifying at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on the land-into-trust issues.
The state’s 2011 expanded gambling law initially froze commercial casinos out of southeastern Massachusetts as the Mashpee worked to secure the necessary approvals to build a tribal casino.
But as time passed, there was little apparent progress in securing land-into-trust, and several of the tribe’s timeline predictions failed to materialize. At various points over the years, tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell had publicly predicted the Mashpee would hold sovereign land by 2013 or 2014.
Amid rising doubts over whether the Mashpee would qualify for sovereign land, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted in March 2013 to open the southeastern region to commercial casino applicants.
Gaming commissioners have repeatedly said they plan to monitor economic conditions, including the tribe’s status, before committing to licensing a commercial, non-tribal casino in the region.
“It’s a real conundrum,” Crosby said.
Under a compact the tribe signed with then-Gov. Deval Patrick in 2013, a tribal casino would pay the state 17 percent of its gambling revenue, but would owe the state nothing if a commercial casino were to open in southeastern Massachusetts.
“It’s hard to do any long-range planning with a variable as serious as that variable is,” Crosby said.
Commissioners have also discussed concerns that a commercial casino and a tribal casino in the same region of the state could over-saturate the market.
— Peter Urban of GateHouse Media’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
— Gerry Tuoti is the Regional Newsbank Editor for GateHouse Media New England.