State Gaming Commission decision fails to impress Taunton mayor

By: Charles Winokoor

An architectural rendering of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's proposed casino in Taunton.
TAUNTON — Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr. declined to speak at length about the state gaming commission granting commercial casino developers more time to apply for a license within the Bay State’s southeast Region C on Thursday.

“The gaming commission has gone down its own path, which at times seems to run counter to what the gaming legislation intended for the southeast region,” Hoye said, shortly before the commission voted to extend the second-phase application deadline for commercial entities from July to at least September, and possibly February 2015.

And after the commission’s decision was made public late Thursday afternoon, Hoye would only say he had no comment.

Taunton has placed its bet in the high-stakes resort-casino arena with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, which has plans to build a $500 million gaming facility in East Taunton’s Liberty & Union Industrial Park.

The tribe, however, can’t begin construction in Taunton until the federal Department of Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs agrees to place land in Taunton and Mashpee into trust in accordance with regulations governing Indian reservations.

If the tribe succeeds in opening in Taunton as the sole casino in Region C, it will pay the state 17 percent of its gambling revenue. If the gaming commission allows a commercial casino to open in the same region, the tribe will not be obligated to pay anything.

The commercial venture, on the other hand, will be obligated to pay 25 percent of its gambling earnings to the state.

The commission met Thursday in Boston after receiving letters from New Bedford city councilors and Mayor Jon Mitchell requesting a deadline extension. It also received a letter from KG Urban, the commercial developer that has developed plans for a casino on New Bedford’s waterfront.

Some observers have speculated that the state, in effect, would shortchange itself by allowing both a commercial and tribal casino in Region C.

If the Mashpee tribe were to increase potential winning payouts to customers, the argument goes, while at the same time not being obligated to pay a percentage to the state, then it wouldn’t matter that a commercial casino would pay 25 percent, because customers over time would flock to Taunton.

Fall River, which opposed any deadline extension, has a plan with Foxwoods to develop a $750 million casino in the city’s South End.

Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell, when asked to comment on Thursday’s development, issued a statement through a public relations firm.

“The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe remains focused on developing Project First Light, our destination resort casino in Taunton. We are well along in our planning and approval processes, and our compact with the commonwealth is approved,” Cromwell said.

He added, “We’re very pleased with the support we’ve received from the Legislature, the governor, the congressional delegation, and the Obama administration and we’re making real progress.”

Middleboro lawyer and former selectman Adam Bond, who previously represented a group of Taunton anti-casino residents, has asserted that the tribe, although federally recognized in 2007, was not “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act was established.

He bases his argument that the Mashpee Wampanoag are not entitled to land into trust on a 2009 Supreme Court ruling tying any such land-placement authority to the 1934 IRA.

Bond, who previously labeled Cromwell a “spinmeister,” has said he’s willing to bring the case to the Supreme Court if his former clients hire him to do so.

The tribe, before negotiating an agreement with Taunton, previously expressed an interests in opening a casino in Middleboro.

In January, Hoye said the commission needs “to think long and hard before they act” — referring to the fact that a Mashpee Wampanoag Taunton casino would not be obligated to pay any revenue to the state, in the event that a commercial casino is allowed to open within the same Region C.

Cromwell praised the Department of Interior in March after it issued a legal opinion that an American Indian tribe need not have been simultaneously federally recognized and under federal jurisdiction in 1934 to qualify for having land placed into trust as a reservation.

Hoye and City Solicitor Jason D. Buffington recently visited Washington, D.C., and met with a representative of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to ask for assistance in expediting the land into trust process.