Wampanoags bet on shellfish as state debates casino

Jim Adams
10/26/05

BOSTON -- The Massachusetts state Legislature is giving priority to
debating an Indian gaming compact, but the one eligible tribe remains
skeptical.

Donald Widdiss, chairman of the federally recognized Wampanoag Tribe of Gay
Head (Aquinnah), said that the island tribe is putting more effort into its
ongoing shellfish hatchery and several developing non-gaming business
ventures than into its long-frustrated quest for a casino.

Even though the Legislature has several gaming options high on the agenda,
Widdiss told Indian Country Today that the Wampanoags were taking a "wait
and see" attitude.

Tribal gaming legislation first came up over a decade ago, he said. "The
tribe is not really any closer [to a casino] than it was in 1995."

A tribal compact would have to survive intricate negotiations between the
state's Senate and House of Representatives, he said. Then it might run
afoul of the presidential ambitions of Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt
Romney, who has promised to veto any expansion of state gambling.

The House committee charged with gaming bills scheduled a morning hearing
Oct. 18 on several casino bills, including one to enact a state-tribal
gaming compact. Earlier in the month the state Senate handily passed a
measure authorizing up to 2,000 slot machines each at the state's four
pari-mutuel race tracks, which would give the tribe leverage for a Class
III casino.

State racing interests are lobbying intensively for the racino bill. On
Sept. 28, the Suffolk Downs thoroughbred track suspended its live racing
for the day and sent practically everyone but the horses to a joint
legislative hearing on the racino bill. The Senate passed the measure Oct.
6 by a vote of 26 - 9.

But the "morning line" in the House is that its powerful leaders will
stymie the Senate bill. The Oct. 18 hearings before the Economic
Development and Emerging Technologies Committee brought up an entirely
different set of bills, including the tribal compact measure first
introduced in 2002. A committee spokesman said the hearing had been
scheduled even before the Senate vote. House leaders have not even referred
the Senate bill to the Economic Development Committee, which is in charge
of gambling legislation.

Even if the House and Senate did agree on a bill, odds are it would founder
in Romney's emerging presidential campaign. Romney, a Mormon and son of
former Michigan governor and presidential contender George W. Romney, has
been appealing to the Republican Party's social conservative base and has
hardened his line against gaming. In 2003, he seemed to tolerate a gaming
bill to help cover the state's budget deficit. But state finances have
recovered and the budget is now running a healthy surplus, which Romney is
now touting in his swings through states like North Carolina.

Although the tribal compact bill might be an academic exercise, it deserves
notice as one of the less greedy measures of the kind to be proposed by a
state Legislature. The bill introduced by state Rep. John Binienda,
D-Worcester, would provide for a tribal contribution of 8 percent of net
gaming revenue to the commonwealth and 1.5 percent to a Local Benefits Fund
for communities in the vicinity of the putative casino. Connecticut's two
tribal casinos, by contrast, give the state 25 percent of the net slot
machine drop, a significant part of the state budget.

In accord with the Connecticut precedent, the payment is a quid pro quo for
an exclusivity agreement, since direct state taxation of casinos is
forbidden by the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Under the bill, the
contributions would cease if "any other person or entity lawfully operates
a Gaming Operation within the Commonwealth at any time." This provision
does make an exception, however, for equipment offered by the Massachusetts
State Lottery Commission or the State Racing Commission. The bill would
prohibit a tribal casino from providing the simulcasting betting now
provided by the four permanent pari-mutuel tracks and the occasional county
fair.

How this provision could mesh with the Senate's racino bill would remain to
be seen. Both the Binienda and Senate bills would set up a new
Massachusetts Gaming Commission with extensive licensing powers.

Even though Massachusetts has an avid and underserved betting public, it
also has a powerful anti-gaming lobby in the Catholic Church. Aside from
the extensive MSLC, which also runs the ubiquitous Keno games, and on-track
simulcasting, bettors either cross state lines to the tribal casinos and
state-sanctioned RaceView Centers or turn to the extensive illegal gambling
run by organized crime. No one gives short odds that the Legislature will
quickly change this situation.

Widdiss is certainly not holding his breath. If the Legislature acted, he
told ICT, "we would exercise our rights under IGRA." But in the meantime,
the tribe is in the middle of due diligence research on non-gaming business
acquisitions which it hopes to make public in a month or so.

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