Legislature: Navajo gambling compact faces opposition from pueblos, lawmakers

Note:  This story is part of a package of stories about the New Mexico Legislature that the Quay County Sun has obtained from the Santa Fe New Mexican.

By Uriel J. Garcia
The New Mexican

Some of New Mexico’s tribes and lawmakers are objecting to a new gambling compact with the Navajo Nation that would allow it to build three more casinos in the state over the next 15 years.

Under the proposal, the Navajo Nation, which currently operates two casinos in New Mexico, would open its third casino five years after the new compact was approved and then stagger the opening of the other two casinos at least three years apart. “Overall, we think this is a good compact,” Jessica Hernandez, Gov. Susana Martinez’s deputy chief of staff, told a panel of lawmakers Wednesday.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said the tribe needs more economic development, and the additional casinos would help.

But some lawmakers and tribes have concerns.

“We’re saturated enough,” Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, a member of the Committee on Compacts, told The Associated Press. “We don’t need anymore.”

Laguna Pueblo Gov. Richard Luarkie said even though his pueblo respects the rights of the Navajos to negotiate gambling compacts with the state, the deal for more operations simply isn’t fair to other tribes.

Recent changes in the proposed Navajo compact do not “change the lack of basic fairness to existing tribes, nor does it remedy the reality that the New Mexico gaming market has already reached a point of product saturation,” Luarkie told lawmakers. “Given the limited population and economic growth in New Mexico, the market doesn’t promise to be any different five years from now.”

Laguna operates Route 66 and Dancing Eagle casinos near Albuquerque. Under amendments to a gambling compact approved in 2007, Laguna and eight other tribes are restricted to two casinos each.

However, there is no limit on the number of casinos under the state’s current compact with the Navajo Nation and four other tribes — the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches as well as Acoma and Pojoaque pueblos. But Pojoaque Pueblo is currently suing the state after failing to reach a new deal.

Laguna officials are concerned that the Navajos will revive a plan to construct a new casino near the Laguna Pueblo’s gambling facilities. The proposal was originally presented last year, but lawmakers said they needed more time to review the documents.

The current compact between the Navajo Nation and the state, which the tribe signed in 2003, is set to expire in June 2015. The new compact calls for the Navajos to make payments under the same terms as tribes covered by the 2007 agreements with the state. Those rates are higher than what the Navajos currently pay.

Under a compact proposed in 2013, a casino making $15 million would potentially share 8.5 percent of its adjusted net win, while a casino making more than $150 million would potentially share 10.75 percent of its adjusted net win by 2037. Under the compact presented Wednesday, casinos making $15 million would potentially share 9.25 percent instead.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate LoRenzo Bates said if the compact is approved, the nation would decide where to build its new casinos after it has conducted market studies.

Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. George Rivera, whose administration is suing the state after it was unable to come to an agreement on a new gambling compact, said he wants the revenue sharing percentage to be lowered. He added that adding more gambling could be an economic blow to tribes.

“The whole philosophy of the negations has been off and hasn’t been able to be corrected,” Rivera said. “Revenue sharing has become a one-sided win for the state.”

The Committee on Compacts will hold a meeting at a later date to consider whether to recommend its approval of the Navajo gaming compact by the House and Senate. The measure also would need approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Uriel J. Garcia at 986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ujohnnyg.

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