BOSTON (AP)- Representatives of the Mashpee Wampanoag made clear Monday they would not accept any state-imposed deadline for the tribe to place land on which it hopes to build a resort casino into federal trust.
Meanwhile, a top aide to Gov. Deval Patrick urged lawmakers not to tinker with a compact the administration reached with the Mashpee last week.
Rep. Robert Koczera, a New Bedford Democrat, told a legislative hearing that he would seek to add to the compact an August 2014 deadline for the tribe to receive approval for its land-in-trust application from the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The land-in-trust process is critical to the tribe's effort to develop a $500 million casino in Taunton. But experts say the process could take two or more years and could be slowed by litigation over the landless Mashpee's status as a recently recognized federal tribe.
The Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technology voted immediately after the hearing to recommend approval of the compact, which would guarantee the state a 21.5 percent share of future gambling revenues from a tribal casino. The full Legislature must ratify the compact by July 31 for the tribe to retain exclusive casino rights in the region.
Koczera, who reserved his vote, said the Patrick administration did an overall good job in negotiating the compact, but "dropped the ball" by not insisting upon any deadline for land-in-trust approval.
"I think the people of southeastern Massachusetts are going to feel betrayed if we don't put some time constraints on what could be a Pandora's box," the lawmaker said.
In one tense exchange with tribal representatives testifying before the panel, Koczera said it would be an "injustice" if the region had to endure lengthy delays while other parts of the state were realizing jobs and other economic benefits from casino development. He added that he did not think an August 2014 deadline would be a deal breaker.
"I can tell you it is a deal breaker," responded Aaron Tobey, vice chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal council.
The tribe's chairman, Cedric Cromwell, said he appreciated Koczera's concern, but added: "You mentioned injustice, and my tribe knows all about this. For over 400 years injustice has been served on my tribe."
The tribe's success could hinge on varying interpretations of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Rhode Island case that limited the government's ability to approve land trust agreements with tribes that were not under federal jurisdiction prior to 1934. The Mashpee achieved federal recognition in 2007.
Patrick's chief-of-staff, Mo Cowan, cautioned lawmakers at the hearing not to amend the compact. Any changes, he said, would force a reopening of negotiations with the tribe and jeopardize approval by July 31.
Cowan indicated that the administration had broached the possibility a deadline during negotiations.
"We did not get all we asked for," he acknowledged, pointing to the tribe's status as a sovereign government that did not have to bend to the state's will. "We could not compel the tribe to include a date certain if they were not so inclined," Cowan said.
Cowan pointed out that the state's new gambling law gives the Massachusetts Gaming Commission authority to determine whether it considers federal approval of the tribe's application likely. If it doesn't, it can open the casino licensing process to commercial bidders.
The administration has pledged to lobby the U.S. Interior Department on behalf of the Mashpee.
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