South Coast casino fears

For years, South Coast politicians were the lonely voices in the gambling wilderness. Even when legislative leadership stood solidly against legalizing casinos in Massachusetts, politicians from the state’s southeastern region would reliably push the issue, arguing that the area was in desperate need of large-scale investment, and casinos were as good a bet as anything else. They flirted with the state’s two federally recognized Indian tribes, and they pushed casino legalization to no avail.

Now, however, as the state prepares to hand out three casino licenses, South Coast lawmakers are fearing that they’re about to be left behind by an industry they’ve spent years chasing.

Yesterday’s State House hearing on the recently-signed compact between the state and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was dominated by concerns about the tribe’s ability to actually deliver on their planned Taunton casino. The tribe, which had previously chased casino deals in Middleborough and Fall River, must put its Taunton land into federal trust before it can open a tribal casino. However, a 2009 Supreme Court ruling held that the federal government can’t legally take land into trust for tribes that, like the Mashpee, were recognized after 1934.

The tribe and Gov. Deval Patrick’s office are now looking for ways around the Supreme Court. That’s of little comfort to South Coast lawmakers, who had initially opposed any carve-out for the Mashpee, and are now sandwiched between an inevitable-looking Caesars complex in East Boston, and a legally murky Mashpee casino in Taunton. Yesterday, New Bedford Rep. Robert Koczera said he feared the Mashpee casino could turn into a legal “Pandora’s box” that would keep the region out of the casino rush, and advocated for putting the Mashpee on a two-year land-in-trust clock. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who ushered casinos through the Legislature, offered this lukewarm vote of confidence on the Mashpee: “How long a period of time the Indian tribe is going to be able to address this issue of the land in trust? Who knows?”

The tribe pushed back strongly, saying any mandated deadline for the tribe to put land into federal trust would be a “deal breaker.” Mo Cowan, Patrick’s chief of staff, warned the Legislature not to amend the compact, lest lawmakers risk blowing the July 31 deadline they attached to the compact.

Cowan also argued that the tribal compact puts the South Coast first in line for a casino, ahead of commercial bidders. Of course, that take assumes the tribal development doesn’t run into any legal roadblocks. 

                                                                                                                                            –PAUL MCMORROW


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