Tribe awaits decision more than three years after Taunton casino vote

Land-in-trust application has been the main hurdle for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's casino resort bid
Architect's rendition of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's proposed casino resort in Taunton. MWT image.

The long, closed-door review of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's land-in-trust application is still proceeding in the U.S. Department of the Interior, which notified Taunton officials Friday of a 30-day comment period on a related matter.

News has been sparse since the "landless" tribe submitted its application to the federal government in early 2013 and Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell hailed the latest bureaucratic step.

"We have always been confident in our prospects. However, this letter is not a final decision, but an indication that the process continues to move forward," Cromwell said in a statement.

The tribe is seeking federal approval for its application to establish a reservation by the government placing land in trust in Taunton and the town of Mashpee.

If the federal government takes tribal land into trust that would pave the way for a tribal casino at what is now a Taunton office park near the junction of routes 140 and 24.

The land-in-trust application has been the main hurdle in the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's bid for a resort casino. The tribe was the first to gain a favorable vote in a local referendum, a non-binding vote in June 2012, less than a year after the casino law was passed. In April 2013 , the tribe said it expected reviews and hearings on the land-in-trust application would be complete later that year with a decision coming out soon afterwards.

The federal government's initial rejection of a gaming compact between the tribe and the state combined with the lengthy land-in-trust review process and skepticism about whether it would be approved led the Gaming Commission to proceed with a commercial casino licensing process for the southeastern region.

A proposal by Rush Street Gaming to build a resort casino on the Brockton Fairgrounds is now the only remaining commercial casino proposal for the region, known as Region C.

The commission is vetting the Brockton proposal and "will also take into consideration the totality of factors affecting Region C before making a final license," according to spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll.

Separate from the process established by the state, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head are aiming to defeat a federal lawsuit so it can proceed with plans to build a tribe-sanctioned gaming facility on Martha's Vineyard, where tribal land is already held in trust.

Thirty days after Friday's letter to Taunton, about Sept. 20, the Bureau of Indian Affairs may issue a reservation proclamation, said Arlinda Locklear, an attorney for the tribe who said the proclamation would only apply if land-in-trust is granted.

Locklear told the News Service a reservation would qualify the tribe for federal programs and would not have bearing on the casino, which would be allowed if land-in-trust and what is called an "initial reservation" is granted.

The tribe wants to make reservation on 170 acres spread around Mashpee and 151.7 acres for the Taunton complex.

The only remaining step in the related but separate land-in-trust application is issuance of a record of decision, according to a Delahunt Group consultant for the tribe.

Locklear said the process underway at the Bureau of Indian Affairs "doesn't preview" what the government will decide to do about land in trust, a decision she hopes is forthcoming soon.

"They hope to get a decision out sooner rather than later," Locklear said.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, the former chief executive of the sports and camping retailer REI, has delegated the land in trust decision to Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation who grew up in Oklahoma. Before joining the Obama administration, Washburn was dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law and more than a decade ago he was general counsel for the federal National Indian Gaming Commission.

Under the gaming compact negotiated with the Patrick administration the Mashpee Wampanoag would face substantially lower state gambling taxes than Wynn Resorts, which won the license for an Everett casino, and MGM Springfield, which won a license to build in Springfield.

Both those commercial establishments would pay 25 percent tax on their gross gaming revenue under the 2011 gaming law. If the Wampanoag casino opened in Taunton when either or both those commercial casinos are in operation, the tribal casino would owe the state 17 percent of its gross gaming revenue, according to the compact.

If both the Wampanoag casino and the proposed Rush Street casino in Brockton both opened the tribal casino would owe zero taxes on its grossing gaming revenue because both casinos are located in the southeast region, which includes the Cape and Islands.


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