New Mexico Legislative Inaction to Negotiate Compact Stirs Navajo Nation's Concerns
Navajo officials are shaken up about the future of their gaming operations in New Mexico, following the unexpected holdup of a new gaming compact in the State Legislature. But at least one state official says the tribe need not worry.
There are 14 gaming tribes in New Mexico, and five of them—the Navajo Nation, Mescalero Apache Tribe, the Jicarilla Apache Tribe, and the Acoma and Pojoaque pueblos—have been running gaming operations under a 2003 agreement that expires in 2015. The Navajo Nation has spent the last five years negotiating its own new compact, which would, among other terms, authorize an increase in capacity from two to five full casinos.
Right now the Navajo Nation operates two casinos in New Mexico—Northern Edge near Farmington and Fire Rock outside of Gallup—as well as a bingo-type gaming facility near Shiprock. Its third casino, Twin Arrows, is just east of Flagstaff, Arizona.
The new compact was expected to go up for a vote on New Mexico’s Senate floor this year, but it never happened.
In a press release about the legislature’s inaction, Navajo Nation Council delegates expressed worry that the Navajo Nation’s investment in the gaming industry is jeopardized, along with 950 jobs for New Mexicans.
“The Navajo Nation has in good faith and respectfully followed the State process under the New Mexico Compact Negotiation Act,” added Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly. “The Navajo Nation is very disappointed that the Senate for the New Mexico Legislature did not move the Compact to the Senate floor for a vote as required by law.”
According to the Navajo legislators’ statement, the Navajo Nation first requested negotiations with the State of New Mexico during Governor Richardson’s administration in 2008. Richardson commenced negotiations in the spring of 2010 and continued to negotiate to the end of his term. In early 2011, after the election of Governor Susanna Martinez, the Navajo Nation continued urging the state to negotiate the new compact. Negotiations picked up momentum again in the spring of 2012, with the appointment of Martinez’s lead negotiator. Finally, on March 8, Martinez submitted the Navajo Nation Compact to the Committee on Compacts. On March 12, the Committee on Compacts, by a vote of 11-4-1, recommended approval of the Compact and submission of a joint resolution to the New Mexico Legislature for an up or down vote by the Senate.
But Sen. George Munoz (D-Gallup), whose district includes a majority of Navajo voters and who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Compacts, did not put the compact on the Senate floor for a vote, even though—according to the Navajo Council members—the New Mexico Compact Negotiation Act requires the legislature to act without delay.
Munoz contends that the delay was an issue of timing; the compact was introduced to the legislature during the last week of session.
“In the last week of the session, everybody’s trying to get bills heard and pushed through,” Munoz said, adding that about 30 percent of the senators are new and require more time to understand and debate bills. “It would probably have been a day’s worth of debate on the Senate side and a day or two on the House side. It just came late. You want people to vote on something that they completely understand.”
Erny Zah, Shelly’s spokesman, said the Navajo Nation isn’t the only entity facing a loss if the new compact fails.
“Without a compact, we can’t operate our gaming facilities,” he said. “If we can’t operate our gaming facilities, we can’t pay the state $8.3 million a year in gaming revenues.”
The new compact represents a minimum revenue share of $194 million a year to the state of New Mexico, over a 24-year period.
But Munoz said money for the state of New Mexico isn’t his primary concern in the compact negotiations—he wants to see the Navajo Nation gets its due. Among other terms, the new compact would have required the Nation to pay $10 million to the state for “free play” income, generated by machine wagers made with “free play” or “bonus point” credits. Munoz believes that’s illegal, and he doesn’t want to see the Navajo Nation pay up.
Because the legislature is taking more time on the compact, he said, “my best guess is they’re going to have $10 million back in their pocket that they didn’t have before.”
Muniz is also concerned about Internet gaming. According to the new compact, online gaming would be outlawed in New Mexico—and he wants to make sure the Navajo Nation doesn’t end up in hot water in his state if Utah or Arizona legalize it; the Navajo Nation includes land in all three states.
Munoz said he has called for interim meetings to discuss the compact, and he expects to see it through to a vote in January of next year.
Although Navajo officials have expressed confusion and disappointment over the delay, hope remains for a smooth resolution.
“This is an important matter to the Navajo Nation and its people. The Navajo Nation will continue to respect and follow the State process under the New Mexico Compact Negotiation Act in moving the Compact forward,” said Council Delegate LoRenzo Bates, Chairman of the Navajo Nation Gaming Subcommittee Taskforce.
Zah pointed out that tribes in Wyoming have had some success getting their gaming operations approved by the Department of Interior, thereby bypassing the state.
“They were able to get their compact approved with the Department of Interior without the state’s consent because they stated that the state didn’t negotiate in good faith,” he said. “That’s not our position. We have a good relationship with the governor and we have a good relationship with the state of New Mexico. Our interest is to work the best we can with each other and see what we can do to get the compact completed.”