Wagering, or wavering?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 15, 2007

The Mashpee can only conduct gambling that is legal elsewhere in the state, or that the state agrees to through a compact with the tribe. At the moment, there is no legal “Level III” gaming (where the bettor wages against the house, as opposed to against another bettor) in Massachusetts, including slot machines and table games.

Typically, what happens now, after a tribe receives recognition, is that the state sits down with the tribal leaders and works out a list (of types of gaming) and a number (of dollars to be paid to the state). Opponents say the state should refuse to make such a deal.

Will that stop the Mashpee? Ask the Seminole tribe in Florida.

Longtime Florida governor Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature refused to work out a deal to allow the Seminole to conduct Level III gaming. The Seminole opened casinos on its reservation land anyway. They installed “video bingo” — which technically counts as Level II gaming, because, even though it plays like a slot machine, it pits linked machines against each other, with the house taking just a percentage, as it would in a church bingo game. The casino was a wild success, so much so that the tribe bought the Hard Rock Cafe chain. (Video bingo survived a Jeb Bush challenge in Florida courts, although the issue has not been settled nationally.)

And the state of Florida, having no compact with the tribe, has been getting bupkes from the $1.6 billion the casino takes in every year.

Ferson says the Mashpee will take the same route, if necessary. Some in the Patrick administration and the legislature say that’s a bluff to force the state to negotiate a Level III gaming agreement. The state’s other recognized tribe, the Aquinna Wampanoag on Martha’s Vineyard, chose not to go that route when the state declined to legalize regular slots a few years ago. If the Mashpee try, federal courts could still define video bingo as Level III gaming.

But does Patrick really want to be the one fighting against the Native Americans — not to mention the labor unions (who badly want those construction, casino, and related hospitality jobs) — over this picayune distinction? And on what moral ground would he stand, when Bay Staters currently gather in dreary barrooms and betting parlors to toss their money away on the state’s own Keno game?

More importantly, what happens if the state goes that route, loses, and is left out as people leave those Keno parlors and dump their money into the Mashpee’s video bingo machines? (That always stands as a last option for the Mashpee, though they would, of course, prefer the trappings of a full-scale gambling operation.) As it stands, only the town of Middleborough, which has negotiated an $11 million annual payment, will reap any piece of the action.

It comes down to money
Certainly, if Patrick comes out against Level III gaming, he can stop the Mashpee from getting it, at least for now. While the legislature could try to approve it over his veto, leaders of both houses have said they will not.

But if Patrick wants to approve gaming in order to better control it, DiMasi could find himself in a politically tough spot, if he chooses to be the lone leadership voice of opposition.

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