The Associated Press

Lawmakers Bar Changes On Taunton Tribal Casino Deal

BOSTON — Lawmakers moved Tuesday to block any changes from being made to an agreement signed by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe to pave the way for a tribal casino in Taunton.

Orders barring amendments to the casino compact were approved by the House and Senate, dealing a blow to efforts by southeastern Massachusetts legislators to add a two-year deadline for the tribe to win federal approval for taking into trust the land on which it hopes to build the casino.

The Legislature will now be limited to voting up or down vote on the compact, with debate expected later in the week.

State Rep. Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who was one of the chief architects of the landmark casino law signed by Patrick last year, admitted it was unusual to preclude amendments to a measure before the Legislature. But he argued that any change made in the compact would necessitate a reopening of negotiations with the tribe and likely scuttle an agreement.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that the compact would not survive an amendment by this Legislature,” Wagner said.

The gambling law, which allows for up to three resort casinos in the state, gives exclusive rights to a federally-recognized Indian tribe to develop a casino in southeastern Massachusetts if a compact is signed by the state and ratified by the Legislature by July 31.

But the Mashpee also face the significant hurdle of persuading the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to place the land into trust. The potentially lengthy process is also clouded by a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited the government’s ability to approve land trust agreements with tribes that were not under federal jurisdiction before 1934.

The Mashpee Wampanoag, a landless tribe, achieved federal recognition in 2007.

Several lawmakers from the region, including Rep. Robert Koczera, feel the compact should include an August 2014 deadline for the tribe’s land-in-trust application to be approved, and that the southeastern Massachusetts casino license should be opened up to commercial bidders if the deadline isn’t met.

“We have every right to review that compact and make a decision,” said Koczera, a New Bedford Democrat, in arguing that amendments to the compact should be allowed.

“There is a matter of fundamental fairness and justice when the compact affects one region of the state,” he said.

A lengthy delay in approving the land-in-trust application for the tribe could leave southeastern Massachusetts behind other portions of the state in benefitting from any jobs and economic benefits from casino development, supporters of a deadline argued.

Wagner noted that the tribe would not have unlimited time because the casino law gives the five-member Massachusetts State Gaming Commission authority to reach a determination – at any time – that federal land-in-trust approval is unlikely.

The House voted 112-39 to adopt the order barring amendments. The Senate approved a similar order on a voice vote without debate.

The compact would guarantee the state 21.5 percent of gambling revenues from the tribal casino, if it were built.

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