Observers have paid close attention to State Treasurer Tim Cahill’s recent comments. Cahill has called for the state to make up to three commercial gaming licenses available, and to open them to a competitive bid — and not even the Mashpee would be guaranteed to get one, potentially leaving the tribe slotless.
Some are reading Cahill’s comments as trial balloons lofted by Patrick. Cahill has long been closer to Patrick than most in state government — a source in the treasurer’s office says they worked with the administration on a daily basis in developing Patrick’s recent bond proposals. Patrick’s chief of staff, Doug Rubin, used to be deputy treasurer under Cahill. And Patrick’s director of government affairs, Mike Morris, formerly held the same job for Cahill.
But in this case, insist both the treasury source and a source close to Patrick, Cahill does not have the governor’s ear — much to Cahill’s chagrin.
Others trying to sway Patrick are likewise unsure whether he’s listening. Patrick has designated Secretary of Economic Development Dan O’Connell as his point person on gaming, and O’Connell isn’t saying much on the subject. He is taking meetings — but will an August 27 confab with O’Connell really provide 15 municipalities near Middleborough serious input into Patrick’s September 3 decision?
“The secretary will continue to meet with interested parties on the gaming issue,” says O’Connell’s spokesperson, Kofi Jones. “The governor takes seriously any input he gets from any stakeholders on this issue.”
Not wishing to wait, stakeholders are trying to get their word out through the press. Advocates have released studies of the economic benefits; opponents have touted studies of the costs. Legal opinions have been bandied about.
And the Mashpee themselves keep moving forward, as they have since officially becoming a recognized tribe this May (a status virtually assured by a March 2006 federal Bureau of Indian Affairs decision). Within a month, the tribe will apply for “land-to-trust” approval with the BIA, which must okay the transfer of land — roughly 100 acres in Mashpee and 350 in Middleborough — to reservation status and approve its intended use as a casino.
That process will take at least two years, and could get held up much longer, depending on what comes of new BIA regulations, which are finally nearing completion after George W. Bush put them on hold in 2001.
The tribe won’t start building a casino until it gets that approval, says its spokesperson, Scott Ferson. So Patrick could delay taking a stand until then. But the governor has signaled his intent to take a position and provide some leadership on the issue — which nearly everyone agrees has been sorely lacking until now.
No stopping it?
Although they won’t break ground yet — and might not ultimately be able to build in Middleborough — the Mashpee Wampanoag will build a casino in southeastern Massachusetts, Ferson says, regardless of what the state government does.
Ferson analogizes the current statewide dialogue on gaming, in the wake of tribal recognition, with the debate on gay marriage after the Supreme Judicial Court decision of November 2003 — whether people were ready to accept it or not, we’ve moved to a new stage in the debate.
Many are not on that page yet. They insist that the legislature can still stop it.