Statehouse gives casino plan another look

Boston – The contentious issue of whether to expand gambling in Massachusetts could be back on the Statehouse’s agenda this summer, driven by the Mashpee Wampanoag’s effort to build an American Indian casino in Middleboro.

The House seemingly dealt casinos a fatal blow in March, defeating Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan for three commercial casinos by a lopsided vote of 108-46.

But Statehouse insiders are now looking at three new fronts in the battle, which will unfold over the coming months:

A hearing and vote on allowing slot machines at the state’s four racetracks is expected in late June or early July, under a promise from House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, a gambling opponent.

While slots are expected to go down to defeat, some see this as the beginning of a new drive to count and enlist supporters for gambling bills next session.
  • The federally recognized Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is expected to initiate compact negotiations with the state in a matter of months – if not weeks. By bringing the state to the table, the tribe will reignite the issue on Beacon Hill. Patrick said last week the state is prepared to negotiate with the tribe when the time comes.
  • Patrick has not made any official announcements, but gambling supporters expect him to file another casino bill in January. Whether it will carve out rights for a Mashpee Wampanoag casino is a major question.
The tribe’s spokesman, Scott Ferson, would only say this week that the tribe would initiate compact discussions with the state „at the appropriate time.“ Sources inside and outside state government expect it to be soon, well ahead of a federal ruling on whether the tribe can take land into federal trust for a casino in Middleboro.

Clyde Barrow, who has studied national gambling trends as the director of the Center for Policy Analysis at UMass Dartmouth, predicted the tribe would begin formal discussions in as soon as 30 days.

Barrow said he has not talked to the tribal leaders or Patrick administration officials about a timeline. But there are advantages to both sides to negotiate a compact before the tribe has land in trust, he said.

Regional monopoly?

„If the governor signals his willingness to negotiate a compact, I think that actually helps the tribe’s case to get land into trust in Middleboro,“ Barrow said. „It signals the state’s acceptance of it.“

He the state could „offer the tribe a regional monopoly in exchange for a share of the revenues.“

„From the state’s perspective, it certainly makes sense,“ Barrow said.

Barrow speculated that Patrick would then refile his casino legislation to allow a compact for a Mashpee Wampanoag casino in Southeastern Massachusetts and two commercial casinos, one in Boston and one in western Massachusetts.

Kofi Jones, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, asserted in a statement last week that the tribe „will have rights to open a casino on any federally recognized land, and it is in the best interests of the commonwealth for the administration to remain in active conversations with respect to their plans.“

Not a ‚done deal‘

Casinofacts.org, which is fighting the proposed Middleboro casino, countered that the governor’s office and the tribe were engaging in political spin. „The governor continues to fan the flames of casino inevitability in order to increase his chances of legalizing gambling in the commonwealth,“ the group said in a statement. „But despite these efforts, a Middleboro casino is still anything but a done deal.“

The group pointed to a number of obstacles, including a federal review of the tribe’s land in trust application that could take years, and the acknowledgement that legislative approval would be required for a gambling compact for a full-fledged, Class III casino.

The tribe has said it could open a Class II „bingo slots“ casino without state approval, though it prefers a compact for a Class III casino.

Casinofacts.org doubts a limited casino would be competitive with nearby Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun or satisfy the tribe’s investors.

The Patrick administration said its casino plan would have generated more than USD 400 million annually for transportation projects and property tax relief, while critics have pointed to social costs and a drain on other businesses, including tourism.

For now, anyway, the looming vote on slot machines appears to be the last word on gambling before the legislative session ends July 31.