Gambling law unknowns

The late entry of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe has upended the calculus behind the Mashpee Wampanoag’s Taunton casino bid. The Mashpee were supposed to have a head start on one of the three casino licenses the state will be handing out. Now, at the very least, the Mashpee might have to head to court to dispatch the Aquinnah and preserve their exclusive negotiating window.

The Aquinnah tribe announced this week that it has secured options to purchase potential casino sites in Lakeville, Freetown, and Fall River. It has requested that each municipality hold a local referendum on building a casino, as is required by the gambling law Gov. Deval Patrick signed last fall.

Lakeville officials responded by asking the tribe to be more specific — along the lines of spelling out exactly where in town the tribe would want to build. The tribe has said it’s not ready yet to discuss specifics, and town selectmen aren’t sure whether the Aquinnah request starts the clock on a regimented local review, as provided by the state gambling law. After all, it’s difficult to start a discussion about gambling impacts on local infrastructure if the town can’t pinpoint where, exactly, the impacts would be occurring.

The Aquinnah appear to have found a gaping loophole in the gambling law, which is surprising, given the number of years Beacon Hill spent debating casino gambling. The casino law provides for local approval of any gambling facility. It instructs municipalities to schedule a local casino referendum between 60 and 90 days after receiving a request from a prospective casino developer.

The law provides for ballot questions to specify the location of the gambling facility voters will be asked to approve, but there’s nothing in the  law that says casino proponents have to disclose where they want to site a casino when asking for a vote. There’s no legal timetable at all for making such a disclosure. At some point, 60 to 90 days after asking for a vote, the proponent would have to disclose site information in order to get it printed on a ballot. But Lakeville selectmen are currently asking for information that, surprisingly, the Aquinnah have no legal obligation to provide. There’s also nothing in the law preventing the tribe from pursuing multiple local approval votes simultaneously.

Last fall, a prominent gaming attorney argued that lawmakers and Patrick administration officials were describing a tribal review process — taking land into trust under the disputed federal Indian Gaming Regulatory act — that isn’t actually required in the language of the gambling law. With a tribe that was supposed to be out of the game suddenly shopping for three separate and as-yet unnamed casino sites, the state continues to be surprised by what it doesn’t know about the gambling law.

                                                                                                                            –PAUL MCMORROW


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