FALL RIVER, Mass. — The state gambling commission on Thursday considered extending an Indian tribe’s exclusive right to build a casino in southeastern Massachusetts, with the tribe claiming progress on its project but others saying it will never happen and the region should be opened to other bidders.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission didn’t vote on the issue Thursday, but chair Steve Crosby said he hoped it could within three weeks.
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The state’s 2011 expanded gambling law created one casino license each for three geographic areas and gave preference in the southeastern region to a federally recognized Indian tribe. But it allows the commission to consider other bidders if the tribe’s plans look unworkable.
The Mashpee Wampanoag are planning a $500 million resort casino in Taunton.
On Thursday, tribal council chair Cedric Cromwell said the tribe is well ahead of the state’s other proposed casino projects. Among the milestones Cromwell listed: overwhelming project approval in a Taunton referendum and a newly negotiated revenue-sharing compact with the state, announced Wednesday.
He predicted the casino would be open by this time next year.
“We have systematically worked to meet every condition,” Cromwell said, adding there was “no reason whatsoever” to open up the bidding.
But state and local officials from communities that want to compete for a casino said getting federal clearances will take the tribe years, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision prevents the tribe from getting the needed land, anyway.
They repeatedly brought up the 2009 Supreme Court ruling that limits the government’s ability to hold land in trust for tribes recognized after 1934. The Mashpee tribe was federally recognized in 2007. It says it can proceed by showing it was under federal jurisdiction before 1934.
But state Rep. Robert Koczera, from New Bedford, said the tribe “faces insurmountable obstacles” getting the land in trust because the Supreme Court decision doesn’t allow it.
Years of litigation would inevitably follow if it were given the land in trust, he said. In the meantime, the region’s two largest cities – Fall River and New Bedford – are struggling with unemployment over 14 percent.
“The gaming commission can’t afford to wait months and years,” Koczera said “The commission should not disadvantage (southeastern Massachusetts) for good intentions. We need the revenue, we need the jobs.”
Rep. Alan Silvia of Fall River said the city has pushing for a casino project since the early 1980s, but now has no chance to compete for one.
“It is incredibly disheartening and so incredibly unfair that while other regions of the commonwealth finally get to benefit from casino gambling, the one region pursuing it for 30 years has been pushed to the side and relegated to second class status,” he said
But Rep. Shaunna O’Connell of Taunton said officials from other communities object to the Mashpee Wampanoag casino because they won’t see its benefits.
“If the shoe was on the other foot right now, their testimony would be quite different,” she said.
She noted that even if the tribe doesn’t receive the state casino license, if it eventually receives federal land in trust, it can still open a casino, without state approval.
“We want one successful casino in the region,” O’Connell said. “We can’t handle two.”
Cromwell said there have been positive indications that the federal government would take the land into trust, and cited a preliminary opinion from the federal Office of Indian Gaming that said the Taunton land appeared to qualify as an “initial reservation.” That could allow the tribe to conduct gambling at the site in the future.
He told the commission it would be “unwise” to decide to accept applications from other bidders, including a nonrefundable $400,000 fee, believing the federal government won’t take the land into trust.
“That is clearly the opposite of what is happening,” he said.