A joint committee of the Massachusetts legislature gave the green light to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s revised tribal-state gaming compact, bringing the tribe’s proposed $500 million Project First Light destination resort casino a step closer to reality.
The Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies approved the gaming compact between the tribe and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick September 10. The compact will now move on to the full state legislature for a vote.
The revised gaming compact was signed by Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell and Patrick March 20, 2013, replacing an earlier compact that was rejected last fall by Interior Department’s then-newly appointed Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn. Washburn said the first compact violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGR) in a number of ways, including an excessive 21.5 percent share of all gross gaming revenues, while asserting “illusory concessions” by the state.
Cromwell issued a statement thanking committee members for supporting the revised compact, “which brings us another step closer to breaking ground on Project First Light. We believe this agreement will keep our world-class destination resort casino on track, ultimately provide thousands of jobs for southeastern Massachusetts and the economic stimulus that will result.”
The Massachusetts legislature approved a bill in 2011 to license three resort-style casinos, including one Indian casino, in three different areas of the state and a single slots parlor in the state. None of those licenses have been issued yet. On September 10, West Springfield residents rejected a Hard Rock Casino by a 55-45 percent vote.
In April the Massachusetts Gaming Commission declared it would allow a commercial casino development in the Mashpee Tribe’s exclusivity zone in the southeastern part, although it’s not clear if the commission has the authority to allow a fourth casino in the state in contradiction to the law.
Cromwell called the commission “a rogue group” and warned that the state would forfeit its share of Project First Light revenues if a commercial casino were to open in the tribe’s area.
The new Mashpee-state gaming compact sets the state’s share of revenue at 21 percent of gross gaming revenue. Although that’s only .5 percent less than the amount in the previous rejected compact, other provisions are vastly more beneficial to the tribe. For example, the 21 percent will continue to be paid as long as the tribe’s casino is the only one operating in the state. When a commercial facility opens in one of the other two gaming regions, the state’s share of revenue from the Mashpee casino will fall to 17 percent. The state’s revenue share will be reduced by an additional 2 percent to 15 percent if a slot parlor opens in the southeast region of the state.
The Project First Light destination resort casino is proposed to be built on 146 acres in Taunton, Mass., in the state’s southeastern area. The project is expected to create 1,000 construction jobs, more than 2,650 permanent jobs, and an $80 million annual payroll. The $500 million project will include a 150,000 square-foot casino, hotels with 300 rooms apiece, 3,000 slot machines, 150 tables and 40 poker tables, and an events center.
The Mashpee Tribe has asked Interior to take into trust 170 acres of land in Mashpee, Cape Cod, in addition to the 146 acres in Taunton, under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act and to declare the lands as the tribe’s “initial reservation” under the IGRA. Both sites are currently held in fee.
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The City of Taunton signed an intergovernmental agreement to host the resort casino in May 2012 and residents voted 63-37 percent to approve the project a month later. Taunton May Thomas Hoye welcomed the joint committee’s approval of the tribal-state compact. “Project First Light will provide much needed employment opportunities to the people of Taunton, as well as the residents of southeastern Massachusetts,” Hoye said in a statement. “This compact is essentially a job creation bill, which will help our region's struggling families gain sustainability in this difficult economy. I am hopeful that the Legislature will approve the compact, as the Tribe continues their quest to have their land in trust application approved at the federal level.”
An anti-Indian casino group has launched a “Carcieri challenge” against the casino project, claiming the tribe was not under federal jurisdiction in 1934. It will be a hard argument to prove, however, in light of the fact that the Wampanoags have the earliest known treaty with the English Crown—a peace treaty in 1621 which was commemorated by the U.S. Mint’s 2011 Native American $1 Coin.
When the United States was created, it succeeded to the English Crown’s relationships and obligations.