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Patrick uses Indian casino bid to trumpet his own

Ken Maguire

Gov. Deval Patrick, trying to persuade lawmakers to bring casino gambling to Massachusetts, is bolstering his jobs-and-revenue pitch with the argument that the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe will beat everyone to it.

The tribe wants the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to approve its request to place 540 acres in Middleborough into federal trust — a key step for the tribe to build a $1 billion casino.

Even though the tribe’s casino could be years away, Patrick is using it to try to gain support for his plan to license three resort casinos, which he says would generate thousands of jobs and $400 million in annual tax revenue.

He’s warning that the state would lose out on a significant amount of tax money, leaving lawmakers to dig into state savings to cover budget deficits, if the tribe wins federal approval for its land.

“We can either do this or have this done to us,” Patrick said.

Patrick even put $300 million in would-be casino licensing fees — separate from annual tax revenue — in his state budget proposal announced last month, in an effort to prod the state Legislature. Top House lawmakers, including House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, oppose Patrick’s bill, but the governor’s coalition includes labor unions and industry interests, all of whom have considerable sway in the Statehouse.

At issue is control — and revenues. Patrick wants the state to control any expansion of gambling. Under his bill, the state would have strict oversight of three commercial casinos and tax them heavily, using the revenues to pay for road and bridge repairs and property tax credits.

Under the federal process, he’d lose control and revenue. The tribe and the governor would have to negotiate a compact, which would formalize a revenue-sharing agreement. That’s how Connecticut makes money from its two Indian-run casinos, but the state would make much more by licensing commercial casinos.

“There are smarter and better ways to go down this path, but we’ve got to get going,” Patrick told WTKK-FM during his monthly appearance last Thursday.

Tribes are limited to operating gambling that is currently legal in the state. Since casino gambling is not allowed in Massachusetts, it was believed that the Mashpee Wampanoags would be limited to so-called “class II” gambling, which is a step below a full-fledged casino.

But the tribe in its application asserts that it has the right to build a full casino, with “class III” gambling, including slot machines. The argument is that because the state allows “casino nights” for charitable purposes, that opens the door for a casino.

And the federal government agrees.

“If it’s allowed within the state, the tribes would be allowed to offer similar games, but they wouldn’t be subject to the length of time, such as a one-night-only [restriction],” said BIA spokesman Gary Garrison.

The path to getting land into trust includes a range of reviews, including environmental.

Patrick last week filed his opposition to the tribe’s federal application, citing concerns such as oversight, environment and a lack of transparency in its contracts with investors, who include Sol Kerzer and Len Wolman, the developers of Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. They’ve proposed a 850,000-square-foot complex that would include a 10,000-seat auditorium, a 1,500-room hotel, 4,000 slot machines and a golf course.

Tribal leaders maintain that they’d pursue a state license if the Legislature passes Patrick’s bill, filed last September and still awaiting a hearing. The governor’s bill gives preference to any Massachusetts-based tribe.

Patrick’s opposition also is being viewed as a strategic step to slow the tribe’s progress so that if his bill ever passes, a casino license would be more valuable to bidders, said Clyde Barrow, a gambling researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

“It makes sense to him from a revenue perspective,” Barrow said.

Barrow is among observers who feel it’s inevitable that the Mashpee Wampanoags will eventually open a casino, with or without the state.

The BIA, he said, is likely to approve the application because the tribe doesn’t have an official reservation. Other tribes around the country that have a reservation but are seeking to place new lands into trust for casinos have been rejected.

“It will happen because this is their initial reservation,” said Barrow, adding that the process could take between three and 15 years.

Amy Lambiaso, a spokeswoman for the tribe and its investors, expects the timeline to be just 18 months.

“The tribe has heard nothing from the federal government to suggest that there will be any issues,” said Lambiaso.

State Rep. Daniel Bosley, a North Adams Democrat and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Economic Development Committee, said the tribe’s federal path is far from a sure thing. He noted the government has been rejecting applications, and questioned whether investors will stick it out if there’s a risk that they can’t do full-fledged casino gambling.

“It’s far from inevitable. It’s only inevitable if you throw up your hands and say I quit, which this governor did right away,” said Bosley, a casino opponent whose committee will eventually hold hearings on Patrick’s bill.

(Associated Press)