Gaming commission won’t alter course on tribal casino
Members reject plea by Brockton developer to grant a commercial license regardless of Mashpee Wampanoag plans
The state’s Gaming Commission rejected a proposal by the developers of a Brockton casino plan to either expedite the licensing process or declare that it will issue a Southeast region gaming license regardless of what happens with the Mashpee Wampanoag plans for a Taunton gaming resort.
Chairman Stephen Crosby, echoing a consensus among the five-member panel, said the commission is still eyeing a decision for the state’s final commercial casino license in February or March. They will not alter their plans despite the recent ruling by federal officials to grant the Wampanoag’s application for land in trust.
“I come to the same bottom line that we should not change our plans,” Crosby said at the commission’s meeting in Springfield on Thursday. “Land in trust is not like a new surprise, like ‘hello, it’s here.’ We knew it was coming; it could come at any time. We knew that someday we’d have to make a decision either with or without land in trust being resolved.”
Under a compact signed by former governor Deval Patrick, the Wampanoag agreed to pay 17 percent of the revenues from a Taunton casino to the state. However, under the agreement, they would not pay anything if a commercial casino opened in the same region. By law, commercial casinos pay a 25 percent gaming tax. The commission has said they will consider the impact of competing casinos as part of their decision on issuing a commercial license in the region.
“Region C should not have to remain in limbo,” John Donnelly, the group’s lawyer wrote in a letter to support its request which was made prior to the Bureau of Indian Affairs decision last week. “As the Commission has acknowledged, delays in opening the Region C establishment carry opportunity costs, in the form of revenue, jobs, and economic expansion.”
But Crosby said guaranteeing a license without weighing whether the Wampanoag casino could open and what its impact would be would run counter to what lawmakers intended when they approved casino gambling.
“It’s always been clear to us that the Legislature wanted to give a head start to the tribe and there was a predisposition not have four casinos,” said Crosby, who acknowledged that the concerns over litigation and extending the timetable have always been considerations for the commission. “We’ve had to weigh the cost of those uncertainties against the express wish of the Legislature to give the tribe their shot.”
The decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is a major step toward paving the way for the Mashpee Wampanoag to open a casino. But some observers point to a 2009 Supreme Court decision that could be an obstacle for the tribe. The decision nullified a push by the Narragansett Indians in Rhode Island to take land in trust, ruling the nation did not have a reservation and was not a recognized tribe within parameters set by Congress. The Wampanoag face the same challenge. But the federal land in trust approval took pains to point out that the bureau’s decision was based on another qualification for tribal recognition that the court did not invalidate.
Catherine Blue, the commission’s general counsel, cautioned members against discussing the federal decision in depth because it was not on the agenda and the commission’s lawyers were still parsing it to determine its meaning. Commissioner Gayle Cameron, without addressing the details, said the decision is a significant “milestone” that the panel has to consider.
“We have a new data point here that could affect the decision,” she said.In other business, the commission watched a presentation for a new plan for the proposed MGM casino in downtown Springfield. The new plan, while maintaining the planned 250-room hotel, reduces the facility from 25 stories to six stories and spreads it out more. In addition, the revised design will move planned market-rate housing to another site outside the casino’s footprint.
The commission took no action on the redesign, but it will eventually have to approve a change in scope.