Skip to main content
Updated:
Original:

Mashpee Wampanoag recognition adds new twist to casino debate

Author:

By Steve LeBlanc -- Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) - The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's success in winning federal recognition as a sovereign American Indian nation is adding a new twist to Beacon Hill's never-ending casino gaming debate.

The tribe has been open about its desire to build a full casino, complete with slot machines and table games, but can't move forward unless state lawmakers decide to legalize casino gaming in Massachusetts.

In the past, most of the pressure to legalize casino-style gaming has come from the state's four horse and dog track owners. Last year, House lawmakers defeated a bill designed to allow each of the tracks to install up to 2,000 slot machines.

That was before the Feb. 15 decision by the BIA to designate the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe as the state's second federally recognized tribe.

Although the tribe could build so-called ''bingo parlors'' - with lottery and bingo games - without any additional state approval, the tribe has bigger ambitions.

''The preference of the tribe would be to agree in a compact with the state on a destination casino much like Mohegan Sun,'' said tribe spokesman Scott Ferson, referring to the Connecticut casino and resort. ''We would hope it wouldn't be viewed as pressure and more of an opportunity.''

But lawmakers say the recognition of the tribe is already changing the dynamics of the debate, including the question of how best to recognize the historical injustices suffered by American Indians.

At the very least, the recognition of the tribe will bring more lobbyists to Beacon Hill, putting more pressure on lawmakers to allow the tribe to build a full casino, according to Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams, a vocal casino opponent.

That, in turn, could open gaming floodgates that the state would be hard-pressed to close, said Bosley.

''We'll have the tracks coming in saying if you allow the Native Americans, then we want slots too,'' he said. ''Once you open the door, you open yourself to continuing pressure to expand. Just look at the Lottery.''

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's path to a full casino wouldn't be quick or easy.

The tribe owns about 200 acres on Cape Cod, but has agreed not to build a casino there. That means it needs to acquire enough land in another part of the state - and then win recognition as a separate reservation by the federal government.

''People are forgetting it's a complicated process,'' said Sen. Michael Morrissey, D-Quincy, who said he supports casinos only because Massachusetts is losing money to neighboring states with casinos.

Morrissey said Massachusetts could agree to license a casino, put that license out to bid and allow the tribe to compete with other commercial casino operators - perhaps giving the tribe the exclusive right to bid last.

''What's to say that we couldn't force them to act like a commercial operator,'' Morrissey said. ''Just because they're recognized doesn't mean they have the right to casinos; and if they want to, they should be prepared to pay full freight.''

Adding yet another level of uncertainty to the debate is Gov. Deval Patrick, who has publicly said he hasn't made up his mind about whether he would support or oppose casino gaming.

On Feb. 15, Patrick congratulated the tribe on winning federal recognition, and said ''They know that we are committed to working closely with them on all matters of shared concern.''

But Patrick hasn't indicated where he'll come down on the casino issue, saying he continues to listen to both sides. He has said he may put together a study group to examine the issue and report back to him.

But at least for the short term, Patrick isn't counting on gaming dollars to help close what he says is a $1 billion hole in the state budget. He said the budget plan he would release at the end of February wouldn't include any new gaming revenues.

In the end, Bosley said the decision whether to give the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe the right to build a casino comes down to a larger decision about the wisdom of gaming and, specifically, highly lucrative slot machines.

''The issue still becomes: do we allow slot machines or don't we allow slot machines,'' Bosley said. ''As you put more gambling in your society, you're putting less money into more profitable enterprises.''

The Mashpee Wampanoag are the second Massachusetts tribe to receive federal recognition after the Wampanoag of Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha's Vineyard. Nationwide, there are more than 560 federally recognized tribes.