The proposed casino was supposed to be a winning bet for all, a rich deal that would be as much of a boon to state taxpayers as it would to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
For three years, the tribe tried to persuade lawmakers to come around to the Wampanoag way of thinking. But a key legislative committee yesterday jilted the tribe when politicians voted to reject the elaborate $175 million proposal. The state must resist “the pursuit for fool’s gold,” according to a letter delivered this week from Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, chairman of the government regulations committee, to the Speaker of the House.
Nevertheless, even as legislators set aside the envisioned casino -- which already exists in the drawings of a professional artist, commissioned over a year ago -- tribal leaders speak of a new plan. They want to build a high-stakes bingo hall in Fall River, on a 35-acre site that they will buy for $1 million. On Monday, they begin the process of placing the parcel into trust.
And then nothing can separate the tribe from its dreams of gambling revenue, chairman Beverly M. Wright said yesterday.
“The tribe is disappointed,” she said. “I’m disappointed. We’re all disappointed. But we have had setbacks before and we will continue to persevere. We will game under the defined regulations of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. It’s very simple. We are only going to do Class 2 gaming and we do not need anybody’s approval.”
Class 2 gaming includes high-stakes bingo and games of chance in which gamblers play against one another, not the house. A casino with slot machines is Class 3 gaming.
According to Mrs. Wright’s interpretation of the federal law, a tribe needs no state approval to engage in Class 2 gaming on its own reservation land. So now, all the tribe needs is to complete its purchase of the Fall River site and persuade the federal government to place the land into trust for the tribe. While this is not a simple process, she believes the tribe will succeed.
Furthermore, once a bingo hall is established, it could eventually be converted to a full fledged casino if legislators ever begin to look at the idea differently. She noted that they may be persuaded because a bingo hall will not generate any money for the state. With its casino proposal, the tribe would have committed $90 million a year to the state, she said.
“And the other thing everybody, the legislature, seems is to miss is that we were talking about 10,000 jobs,” she said. “That’s what we originally started out to do, to give jobs to our tribal members, get economic self-sufficiency and on top of that we were willing to share those jobs. Maybe the legislature will take another look at our proposal that we have been pushing for the past four years.”
Indeed, it’s been a long time that the tribe has pushed its vision.
Unfortunately for the tribe, the high point of the campaign came early. Things looked best, perhaps in 1994, the year Gov. William Weld signed a formal agreement with the tribe to support the casino. The tribe and the governor also agreed that they would support a second casino in Hampden County and slot machines at four racetracks. The tribe hired a team of lobbyists to push its plan.
But those lobbyists privately admitted things were going badly as long ago as spring 1996. At a meeting conducted just a little more than a year ago in Gay Head, one of the tribe’s key lobbyists said his job was “like trying to push a snowball, about the size of this room, up a hill.”
Today, at least $6.5 million has been spent on the plan that is being shelved. The effort was underwritten by Carnival.
Yesterday morning, the 17-member House-Senate committee on government regulations voted overwhelmingly to reject the tribe’s proposed casino and the other gambling proposals. Only one member voted in favor; the rest appeared to agree with a 40-page report presented by Representative Bosley, which described casino gambling as a bad idea.
Mr. Bosley, who has studied the gambling issue since last year, said casino gambling would hurt the state by draining profits from the state lottery. A casino would not generate money, his report states; it would simply redistribute money by taking it away from poor people, who are more likely to gamble. And that it would lead to more gambling for Massachusetts, making the industry hard to control.
“I came to this process with an open mind,” Mr. Bosley states in his letter to the Speaker, “and after countless hours of meetings and study I can quite emphatically state that the commonwealth and her citizens would be a net loser if we were to legalize casino gambling here.”
The full House is expected to accept the committee’s recommendation on Monday.
For some tribal members, the process has been frustrating to watch. Certain members believe that far too much effort has been invested in the mainland gaming initiative -- and that too much continues to be invested.
“Why this big push to establish a bingo hall when we have a need to establish some sort of economic strategy for the folks on the homeland?” asked Donald Widdiss, a former chairman of the tribe. “We don’t owe anything to Fall River or New Bedford or anyone in the state. The tribes owes it to people here.
“If this was put in the context of a corporation trying to establish a new business, we would have gone into something else by now. I think it’s a done deal that there’s going to be no casino. What we’ve got is less than what we had four years ago, all for the sake of pursuing the golden goose.”
Mr. Widdiss also questioned the ease of establishing a bingo hall, saying the federal laws are not perfectly designed for this proposal.
Others agree. In fact, state Atty. Gen. Scott Harshbarger has threatened to sue the tribe if it tries to build the bingo hall. In a March 21 memo to legislators, Mr. Harshbarger said the tribe is dramatically overstating its rights.
“The Wampanoag Tribe may not conduct any form of gambling, including bingo, in the commonwealth without approval by the legislature... ,” the memo states. “Although proponents of casino gambling would like everyone to think that casino gambling is inevitable under federal law, this simply is not true.”
Many observers of the process say the tribe might have been successful had it done things differently. Some say it was mistake to make a deal allowing a Western Massachusetts casino and slot machines at the tracks. Others have criticized the tribe’s lobbying efforts. But perhaps the biggest problem was simple timing said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington.
“There is a tide that ebbs and flows on this kind of an issue,” he said. “In the time since they first brought it out, the places that [have casinos] found out it didn’t work. Seeing that on the national stage made a lot of Massachusetts people less interested. That’s what hurt them more than lobbyists or the rest.
“But there are some good points. The members of the tribe who carried the ball conducted themselves with dignity and made a good impression wherever they went. Jeffrey Madison and Beverly in particular. The tribe didn’t hurt itself.”