The Massachusetts House of Representatives has approved a revised tribal-state gaming compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in a landslide vote of 116-38. The yes vote brings the Mashpee Tribe’s proposed $500 million Project First Light destination resort casino closer than ever to a shovels-in-the-ground moment. The compact now moves to the state Senate for a vote.
The revised gaming compact was signed by Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell and Gov. Deval 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.
“We thank the members of the House for supporting this revised compact, which brings us another step closer to breaking ground on Project First Light,” Cromwell said in a statement. “We believe this agreement keeps our world-class destination resort casino on track, ultimately providing thousands of jobs for southeastern Massachusetts and billions in new revenue for the Commonwealth.”
The Project First Light destination resort casino is proposed for the City of Taunton, Mass., an old industrial city in the southeastern part of the state that has been hard hit by de-industrialization and the recession. 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.
Washburn rejected the first compact because it violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in a number of ways, he said, including an excessive 21.5 percent share of all gross gaming revenues, while asserting “illusory concessions” by the state.
The new 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.
Although the Mashpee Tribe has exclusive rights for a casino in the southeast region, a 2011 law that allowed casino expansion in the state said the Massachusetts Gaming Commission could consider bids for a commercial casino in that area if it determines that the tribe will not have land taken into trust by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The commission sought bids in April, but KG Urban Enterprises, which wants to build a casino in New Bedford, was the only new company that filed papers along with the required $400,000 application fee in advance of a Sept. 30 deadline for phase one applications, or background checks.
Cromwell said the single bidder confirmed the tribe’s position as the lead casino developer in the region. “The market recognizes that we have sovereign rights as a tribe and our project is ahead of any other development in the state,” Cromwell said in a statement. “We have a site in Taunton, an overwhelming vote of support from the community, a strong investment team, and we have made significant progress in the permitting process. We now have before the legislature a compact agreement that gives the Commonwealth over $2.1 billion, targeting funds for education, economic development, and transportation—and directs over $300 million to southeastern Massachusetts. “
If a commercial casino were to open in the tribe’s exclusivity zone, it would not be required to share any revenues with the state.
A staunch supporter of the Mashpee Tribe and the casino proposal, State Rep. David Vieira raised another issue that he says needs to be addressed: the tribe's rights to fish and hunt on ancestral lands, the Cape Cod Times reported.
"For me, the compact was really about exploring and strengthening those two sovereigns which have to coexist, whether it be in Mashpee or any other part of the commonwealth," Vieira said. "There are still issues around the aboriginal fishing and hunting rights. … We need to sit at the table and have that dialogue and not just focus on the casino."
Following the vote in the state Senate, which is expected to approve the compact, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will have to approve the tribe’s Environmental Impact Report and take the proposed casin’s144-acre parcel of land into trust.