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Navajo gambling pact may be in limbo

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SANTA FE – A new gambling compact between the state and the Navajo Nation was lobbed late into the New Mexico legislative session, and it’s unclear whether the House and Senate are going to touch it.

Gov. Susana Martinez and the Navajos recently negotiated a new gambling pact that would remain in effect until 2037, allow the tribe to have five casinos and boost the share of revenue the tribe pays the state.

It was sent to lawmakers by the Governor’s Office for their approval with just over a week left in the 60-day session, and a special Legislative Committee on Compacts met quickly and voted to refer it to the full Legislature.

But there has been significant backlash – from legislators who complain it’s happening too fast and from other tribes and pueblos that don’t like the agreement and fear it could affect their own compact negotiations.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, chairman of the compact committee, said Thursday that he wasn’t sure whether he would introduce the compact to the full Legislature before the 60-day session ends at noon Saturday because the controversy surrounding it might mean long debates that would derail action on other bills.

“I don’t think it’s fair to shut everything down to do that,” Muñoz said.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said he was “very leery of what’s going on” with the compact.

He contended that lawmakers who attended the quickly organized committee meeting Tuesday didn’t realize they would be voting on the compact and hadn’t had an opportunity to scrutinize it.

Under state law, the committee has to meet and make a recommendation within 45 days, which it did, voting 11-4 to endorse the compact. The committee is then supposed to introduce a joint resolution “without delay.” There is no time limit in state law for the full Legislature to vote on a compact.

By law, the House and Senate can vote a compact up or down but not change it.

“I need time. I want time. I want to hear from my constituents, as well … how it impacts them,” said Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, whose district includes casinos operated by Sandia, Santa Ana and San Felipe pueblos and the Jicarilla Apaches.

“We’re caught in the middle,” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Lorenzo Bates, who was at the state Capitol monitoring developments.

The Navajo Nation, whose current compact expires in 2015, says it wants to get a longer-term agreement in place to allow for planning and to ensure the tribe’s investment in its current casinos – it has two covered by the existing compact – isn’t compromised.

“We’re asking to be heard, a simple up or down vote,” Bates said.

Bates also said the Navajo Nation’s proposed compact was its own and wouldn’t affect other tribes.

If those tribes “are able to get something better than we can, more power to them,” he said.

Martinez’s office said in a statement that it was “well aware of the importance of this issue to the Navajo Nation.”

“Now that a joint, bipartisan legislative committee has approved the Navajo compact, we know that the Nation is looking forward to the opportunity for a vote on the compact it worked so hard to negotiate,” said the governor’s spokesman, Enrique Knell.

One of the big objections of other tribes is the agreement in the proposed compact regarding “free play,” which is an ongoing matter of dispute between other gambling tribes and the state Gaming Control Board. At issue is whether the jackpots won by customers who play for free should be counted as revenue that must be shared with the state – in effect, the taxable base – or whether, as tribes contend, it can be deducted from that base.

The Gaming Control Board estimates the “free play” deductions have cost the state between $20 million and $40 million over the past five years.

The proposed compact with the Navajo Nation says the tribe can deduct 65 percent of its “free play” jackpots.

Munoz sent a letter Thursday to state Attorney General Gary King asking him to weigh in on whether the Gaming Control Board’s position on “free play” amounts to a tax on tribes contrary to federal law.
Navajo gambling pact may be in limboOther tribes fear deal could sway their negotiations with state

LEGISLATURE 2013
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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