BOSTON — The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s ability to put land into federal trust was the central focus of a hastily called legislative hearing Monday on the deal the tribe has negotiated with Gov. Deval Patrick.
The tribe is seeking to have the federal government take 146 acres in Taunton into trust for a $500 million casino. The trust land is a requirement of federal laws governing Indian casinos.
Ultimately on Monday, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies moved the compact along to the full House and Senate with a favorable recommendation.
But state Rep. Robert Koczera, D-New Bedford, a member of the committee, repeatedly said it was a mistake not to give the tribe a deadline to settle its federal requirements. He suggested August 2014 but his amendment gained no support.
“Now why do I take a stand sort of like Armageddon? The reason is very simple. It’s jobs,” Koczera said. “I certainly believe it would be a crime, a great injustice to the people of Southeastern Massachusetts, if two years from today they still can’t get that land-in-trust question resolved.”
The public hearing was held Monday, just four days after Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo sent the bill to committee.
Casino opponents criticized the fast pace. Scott Harshbarger, the state’s former attorney general, called it the “same old, same old — do it behind closed doors, do it fast, limit access to key leaders and special interests, and get it passed.”
The deal benefits the state and the tribe with thousands of construction and permanent jobs, tribal council Chairman Cedric Cromwell said during his testimony.
But tribe leaders said a deadline on their trust application would be a deal breaker. In a follow-up interview Monday, tribe Vice Chairman Aaron Tobey, who sat in on negotiations, said the governor’s office sought a deadline but the tribe balked at the idea.
“We did see that as crossing over the line and not respecting us as a sovereign (nation),” Tobey said.
“The tribe would not believe it appropriate to put a time limit on vindicating its sovereign status,” attorney Howard Cooper said during Monday’s hearing.
The timeline is an issue because a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, known as the Carcieri decision, called into question the U.S. Department of the Interior’s ability to take land into trust for tribes federally recognized after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.
Though the Mashpee Wampanoag were federally recognized in 2007, tribe historians are trying to document that the tribe was under federal jurisdiction before 1934 and therefore is entitled to get land in trust for an initial reservation.
The Interior Department has taken land into trust for the Cowlitz Tribe in Washington state. That tribe was federally recognized in 2002, but has initiated lawsuits that are still pending in federal court.
As part of the compact, Patrick has vowed to work with the tribe to support and expedite the land-in-trust application. That’s a concession the tribe appreciates.
“It’s unprecedented to have a tribe and state going together hand in hand,” Cromwell said.
There is already a safeguard in place to make sure the process doesn’t go on unresolved. At any time after Aug. 1, the state Gaming Commission can put the license out to bid if it determines the tribe won’t be able to get the land in trust.
“The commission’s ability to make that decision ensures the southeast (region)’s interests in the timely development of a casino in their region will not be lost,” said William “Mo” Cowan, Patrick’s chief of staff, who testified on behalf of the governor.
The compact will pay the state 21.5 percent of gross gambling revenues — a figure that experts have said makes it the most generous agreement between a tribe and state in the country.
Some legislators on the committee asked why it was 3.5 percent less than commercial casinos will be taxed.
The state was required to negotiate in good faith under federal law, Cowan said, and the tribe is under no obligation to offer revenue from its project.
Though the tribe balked at a deadline on the trust land, it has been operating under a tight time frame imposed by the legislation that authorized three casinos and a single slot parlor.
The state has until July 31 to win legislative approval of the tribe’s compact or the gaming commission can seek competitive bids.
State Rep. Keiko Orrall, R-Lakeville, criticized the vote to move the compact forward.
“The process is backwards,” Orrall said outside the hearing room. “The surrounding communities have not been contacted; they’ve not been a part of this process.”
Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr. testified in favor of the compact, as did two city councilors. The tribe has agreed to pay the city $13 million per year, as well as an initial $33 million for infrastructure improvements.
The compact also had the support of labor leaders.
“We need this,” said David Araujo, business manager for the laborers union, who was joined by five other trade union bosses. “We’ve been hurting for a long period of time now.”