The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's plans to build a casino received a boost when the House overwhelmingly approved gambling legislation, but the tribe is still facing a number of federal roadblocks.AP
By George Brennan
April 16, 2010
Wednesday's vote by the House approving two resort casinos and up to 3,000 slot machines at state racetracks is a step toward the Mashpee Wampanoag's goal of building an Indian casino.
But if that was a step on a ladder, it would be closer to the bottom rung than the rooftop. While a change in state law is essential for the tribe, there are a host of federal steps hampering its pursuit of gambling riches.
Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's quest for a casino
In February 2008, one month before Gov. Deval Patrick's three-casino plan went up in flames, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar called into question all land-into-trust applications for tribes recognized after 1934.
That decision stalled work on the Wampanoag application for an initial reservation that includes 539 acres in Middleboro and 140 acres in Mashpee. The Mashpee tribe was federally recognized in 2007.
While tribes predicted a quick fix to the Carcieri ruling, legislation has languished.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat who represents Middleboro, says the Senate bill isn't likely to come to the House for a vote anytime soon.
"Should that occur, however, I will not be supportive of passage," Frank wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Times. "As a member of the U.S. Congress, I will not support House passage of a measure that would entitle the Mashpee Wampanoag to override local laws in that regard."
A spokesman for Frank said the e-mail accurately reflects his views on the issue.
Some expert observers concur. Matthew Fletcher, a Michigan State University assistant professor who studies tribe issues and is a member of the federally recognized Grand Traverse Band in Michigan, said the outlook is bleak to overturn the high-court ruling.
"My sense is that the Carcieri fix legislatively is a non-starter," he said. "That doesn't mean it can't show up in an appropriations bill, but on its own, it's going no where."
Mark Belanger, an outspoken critic of the tribe's plans in Middleboro, said even if federal officials were inclined to change the law, the state has shown zero interest in working with the tribe. The tribe's own agreement with the town, which calls for $250 million in water, sewer and road upgrades, also provides a financial hurdle.
"The odds against a tribal casino in Middleboro are still extremely long," Belanger said.
Tribe officials did not respond to requests for interviews yesterday, but have generally applauded the state's move toward expanded gambling.
As the House bill now moves to the state Senate, it faces scrutiny from Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, who opposes slots at the tracks in favor of resort-style casinos that offer more than just gambling. "As she has said in the past, we need to make sure we have proper regulations and oversight in place first, and we also need to look at the best ways to optimize revenues and create permanent jobs," a spokeswoman said.
The Senate is expected to take on the question after it debates the state budget next month, she said.
State Sen. Robert O'Leary, D-Barnstable, a casino opponent, says he expects a gambling bill to pass the Senate.
"I think it's a mistake for us to head in this direction," he added. "There's a lot of talk about how much revenue it will generate. They exaggerate what will come in and don't calculate the administrative costs and the social costs."
Gov. Deval Patrick, though he supports casinos, opposes so-called racinos. Much has been made of House Speaker Robert DeLeo getting a veto-proof vote of 120-37.
Not so fast, says Rep. Jeffrey Perry, R-Sandwich. Though he supported DeLeo's casino bill, Perry tried to introduce an amendment that would put the racino licenses out to competitive bid. Like him, other legislators were not fully satisfied with the final bill.
"There was a lot of: 'This is better than nothing,' " Perry said. "...I'd like to see it improved."
DeLeo wants his casino bill passed and Murray is pushing an economic development consolidation that recently passed the Senate.
"They're going to look at each other and say, 'I'll scratch your back and you scratch
mine,' " said Richard McGowan, an economics professor at Boston College who studies gambling issues. He said he doesn't expect the Senate will change much, but Murray may ask for fewer slots at the tracks.
Ultimately, it will be the Wampanoag on the outside looking in as Massachusetts zooms ahead while they're still climbing the ladder.
"They're the ones who are really getting it in the chin," McGowan said. "Who is going to go to Middleboro?"
EDITORIAL FOOTNOTE: Are the Mashapee Wampanoags going to be left out? Is that fair? Is it going to end up being four (4) racinos and two (2) resort casinos?
Is the Mohegan proposal of a casino in Palmer a long shot? Do the legislators in Massachusetts have any idea of what they are doing? What do you think?