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Massachusetts study recommends commercial gaming licenses for Mashpee and Aquinnah

NORTH DARTMOUTH, Mass. - A new study says the state would reap hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of new jobs from three commercial resort casinos, and recommends offering two of the gaming licenses to the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes.

The report, by the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth, estimates that three resort casinos, located in Suffolk Downs in East Boston near Logan International Airport and in the southeastern and western parts of the state, would generate $1.5 billion in gross gaming revenues annually - or about $400 million in revenues for the state within the first full year of operation, assuming a 27 percent tax.

Licensing fees would provide an additional $60 million per year to support work force development, college and university scholarships, and municipal construction jobs; and as the resorts ''mature'' and capture more of the market from neighboring states, gaming revenue to the state could increase to around $600 million annually, Barrow said.

The three facilities would create about 10,000 construction jobs and more than 10,000 facility jobs; grow the state's tourism, hospitality and convention sectors; and provide businesses with the opportunity to compete for more than $400 million annually in casino-related goods and services contracts.

''If the governor and state Legislature approve world-class commercial resort casinos at Suffolk Downs and southeaster Massachusetts and western Massachusetts, they will ensure Massachusetts' dominance of New England's gaming, entertainment, tourism, hospitality, and convention and meeting industries, said CFPA Director Clyde W. Barrow, who released the study Aug. 6.

Bay State residents are the biggest contributors to the two tribal casinos in Connecticut and the state-owned slots in Rhode Island, spending around $1.1 billion a year. Casinos in Massachusetts would recapture hundreds of millions of those dollars, Barrow said.

The study says the state's interest would be served best by licensing commercial resorts casinos under the laws and governance of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It recommends offering two of the gaming licenses to the recently federally acknowledged Mashpee Wampanoag and to the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes to operate resort casinos in the southeastern and western parts of the state.

In return, each tribe would have to agree to waive all gaming-related rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

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A state gaming license is ''one of the alternatives that's been proposed and should it be held up for consideration, we'd take a look at it, but not knowing what the terms and conditions are, I couldn't comment at this point,'' said Aquinnah Wampanoag Chairman Donald Widdis.

It might actually be easier to apply for a commercial gaming license than go through the process of applying to the Interior Department to take land into trust for gaming, Widdis said.

''If you look at it strictly from the perspective of economic development and business opportunities, that's certainly true,'' Widdis said.

The Aquinnah Wampanoags are among a handful of New England tribes, including the Narragansetts of Rhode Island and the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes of Maine, that broke new ground in pursuing land settlement deals under the 1790 Non-Intercourse Act in the early 1980s. But ambiguities in the language of the settlement acts have been interpreted by the states and federal appeals court to compromise tribal sovereignty and immunity.

In the Aquinnah Wampanoags' case, a state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the tribe's 1983 land claims settlement took precedence over the federal Indian law of sovereign immunity. The tribe has been prevented from pursuing any kind of gaming, but if the Mashpees are successful in establishing the state's first casino, the Aquinnah will likely be able to pursue a casino of their own.

Mashpee Chairman Glenn Marshall could not be reached for comment. The tribe has purchased land in Middleborough, where townspeople recently voted 2 to 1 to support the tribe's casino efforts. But the Interior Department must take the land into trust, and ''the reality is that gaining federal approval to take land in trust for the express purpose of building a casino becomes more problematic every day,'' Barrow said.

The tribes could be out of the loop by rejecting a state offer of commercial licenses, Barrow said.

''The commonwealth could approve gaming expansion and license commercial casinos while the two tribes, by refusing to follow this route, could find themselves embroiled in expensive litigation that could delay the opening of an off-reservation casino for many years to come. And if state officials license resort casinos at Suffolk Downs and in New Bedford, the two tribes could find that the potential market for one or more tribal casinos is already siphoned off by the commercially licensed facilities,'' he said.

Barrow said the report was given to Gov. Deval Patrick's office and briefed to the secretary for economic development. Patrick is expected to announce at the end of August whether he supports a casino initiative, but casino gaming in Massachusetts is contingent on legislative approval.