Gaming technology flexes its muscles in New Mexico

Is Big Brother watching you? Not likely, but if you're playing the slots in New Mexico, he may see you out of the corner of his eye.

The Gaming Control Board there, in conjunction with the gaming commissions of the state's 10 gaming tribes and pueblos, has begun testing what it calls "telecommunication accounting systems" designed to monitor wager and payment activity at the slot machines in New Mexico's casinos. Such oversight will enable officials to accurately determine the amount of each tribe's payment to the state under the terms of gaming compacts agreed upon in 2001.

"What we're actually doing is tying into the [tribes '] slot accounting systems via their modems and doing an extract file from their slot data system on a daily basis," Greg Saunders, Chief Information Officer for the New Mexico Gaming Control Board, told ICT.

Test results are currently under review, as gaming officials and the various tribal commissions work to assess the integrity and accuracy of slot machine data. Completion of the testing process is scheduled for March 31, at which time downloading of data will begin, monitoring slot activity for the second fiscal quarter. Data downloaded through the new system will be reconciled with information provided to the state by the tribes, according to a press release.

Under terms of the 2001 compacts, New Mexico's pueblos agreed to pay the state an annual regulatory fee of $100,000 in addition to eight percent of all slot-machine revenues. New Mexico's Indian casinos contain approximately 10,000 slot machines.

In the 2001 compact negotiations, a compromise was worked out that would give the state data to audit against but would also address tribal sovereignty concerns.

"Our tribes didn't want us onsite, and we really didn't have the manpower to be onsite so this was the next best thing," Saunders explained. "So, we got this worked into the compacts. It was specifically stated in the compacts as a negotiation point." By way of comparison, Saunders noted that in neighboring Arizona, gaming officials perform their checks onsite.

Saunders added that the New Mexico tribes are required to provide a certified audit to NIGA. "We will go against that. Every quarter the tribes have to pay their revenue share, and that number should match what we download."

Proper and fair enforcement of compact terms is, of course, important and certainly in the best interests of both the state and the pueblos. It looks as if New Mexico's tribes and gaming regulators have forged a compromise that will benefit both sides. Sovereignty concerns are respected by having regulators work remotely, while the regulators now have direct access to slot machine data for audit purposes.

The desirability of Indian gaming as a driver for economic growth is readily apparent in New England. A pair of Las Vegas-based gambling heavyweights, Boyd Gaming and Harrah's Entertainment, are reportedly battling it out in Rhode Island. The two casino operators hope to position themselves advantageously in case that state decides to allow expanded Indian gaming within its borders.

Massachusetts wants a piece of the action. More than 400 people in the town of Warren, near Springfield, recently signed a petition favoring a casino in their town. Local government officials authorized a non-binding referendum on the matter to be held in conjunction with May 7 elections. Backers say a casino placed on land adjacent to the Mass Turnpike could waylay the tour buses that currently speed by toward Connecticut's Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. According to wire service reports, many of the town's 4,700 residents feel a casino would be a good revenue source for the town, while a group of pro-casino residents in nearby Palmer has engaged the services of a lobbyist.

Elsewhere, studies on effects and impact of Indian gaming at the town, county and state levels are either being debated or released. Idaho's state legislature has flip-flopped over spending $60,000 for a study on the issue; at last word the study was a "go."

A coalition of Wisconsin tribes recently published findings in support of longer compact lengths and less restrictive measures on types of games and betting limits, saying such terms will result in more jobs for residents and more money for the state. [Ed. note: See related stories.] Pro-casino groups in both Maine and Rhode Island have also reportedly asked for studies on Indian gaming in their respective states.

Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, a Republican, is reportedly considering the call for a special session of that state's legislature to resolve the issue of new gaming compacts for Arizona's casino-operating tribes. The current 10-year compacts are due to expire in 2003 and 2004. Hull has proposed allowing blackjack and more slot machines in return for a share of the proceeds. Some of the state's tribes have said they will call for a statewide referendum if the legislature fails to act in their favor.

An anonymous group from California (a state where Indian gaming is still a relatively new phenomenon) made and then quickly withdrew a recommendation to radically expand gaming in that state. Backers of the proposed measure, the Gaming Control Act, hoped to permit the state's licensed casinos, currently restricted to card games and slots, to offer roulette, craps and betting on sports. The latter is currently legal only in Nevada.

The Puyallup Tribe of Indians revealed plans this week to shut down its bingo hall in June and reopen it this fall as a casino with 500 electronic games, but no table games. Those will come later, as the tribe's long-term plan includes a $200 million casino complex near Tacoma, Wash., which will feature a hotel, shopping arcades, an arena, health spas and several restaurants.

Back in New Mexico, the Pojoaque Pueblo lost out in federal appeals court in Albuquerque. The court declined to hear the pueblo's case that a district court lacked jurisdiction over a lawsuit filed against the tribe in 1997 by the state attorney general for nonpayment of 16 percent of slot machine proceeds mandated by compact. Ten of the 12 tribes named in the suit eventually settled with the state, agreeing to back payments and signing new compacts requiring payment of up to eight percent of slot machine proceeds.

The Pojoaque had argued that tribes have sovereign immunity from the state's lawsuit. Neither they nor the Mescalero Apache Tribe have settled with the state.