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Lawmakers consider revised gaming pact for Navajos

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SANTA FE – A revised gambling agreement that would allow the Navajo Nation three more casinos but phase them in over a minimum of 15 years is scheduled for its first airing in the Legislature today.

It’s a rewrite of the compact proposal the Navajos first unveiled last year, which ran into a torrent of objections from lawmakers and other tribes and was never voted on by the full Legislature.

This latest version was negotiated between the Navajos and Gov. Susana Martinez’s office in recent weeks, after it became clear there were still strenuous objections to last year’s version.

“I think the changes have made a lot of headway” in addressing the concerns of legislators, said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, vice chairman of the Committee on Compacts.

“I don’t see any problem with it,” said Muñoz, who was troubled by some of last year’s provisions.

Authorizing the Navajos to have five casinos – up from the current two – has been a sticking point. Tribes with casinos along Interstate 40 – Laguna and Acoma Pueblos – have been particularly concerned about prospective competition in the busy corridor.

The latest proposal allows five but provides a timeline. The first new casino couldn’t open earlier than five years after the pending proposal becomes effective – 2019, hypothetically. The next couldn’t open until 10 years after the effective date, and the final one until 15 years after the effective date.

The tribe wouldn’t be obligated to open casinos at five-year intervals, but no casino could open within three years of the previous one.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said Tuesday that he still objects to five casinos and will recommend that the Committee on Compacts ask the governor and the Navajos to renegotiate that provision. By law, the legislative committee can’t change the gambling agreement but can ask that it be renegotiated.

The new proposal also reverses course from the previous compact proposal on the issue of “free play.” It would allow the Navajos to continue to do what New Mexico tribes historically have done: deduct the jackpots won by customers who play for free from their “net win,” the bottom line that determines how much revenue they pay the state.

In the previous version, the Navajos had agreed to subject 35 percent of their “free play” jackpots to revenue sharing. That drew criticism from other tribes that have been in a dispute with the state Gaming Control Board over “free play.” The board contends the tribes are underpaying the state.

Separately, the Navajos have paid the state $500,000 to settle the “free play” dispute. That won’t be affected by the newest proposal.

Also eliminated from the newest version of the compact was a provision that said if Internet gambling were authorized in New Mexico, the Navajos’ payments to the state would be suspended.

Navajo Nation spokesman Lorenzo Bates said the changes were made to address the concerns of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which must approve the pact, and the objections of legislators.

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