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Two tribes reach out to Gov. Martinez over possible casinos

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SANTA FE – Two more New Mexico tribes, Zuni Pueblo and Jemez Pueblo, have reached out to Gov. Susana Martinez about gambling compacts that would allow them to open casinos.

That’s a first for Zuni, on the state’s western edge, south of Gallup. Jemez, north of Albuquerque, hasn’t had a compact but previously pursued a casino project off-reservation in southern New Mexico without success.

The locations of possible new casinos aren’t yet known. But the Zuni and Jemez feelers are the latest developments in the increasingly crowded world of Native American gambling operations.

By law, the state must negotiate gambling compacts with tribes that request it. There is no limit in law on the number of casinos that may be authorized, although whatever is negotiated between the governor and a tribe must be approved by the Legislature.

The Navajo Nation tried during the recent legislative session to get approval for a compact authorizing it to build three new casinos, for a total of five. It was vigorously opposed by pueblos worried that the Navajos would put a casino along Interstate 40 west of Albuquerque, further slicing up the central New Mexico market.

Zuni and Jemez sent letters to Martinez’s office in January and there have been preliminary conversations following up, according to Jessica Hernandez, the governor’s deputy chief of staff and lead negotiator for compacts.

Fourteen tribes currently operate casinos in the state. Five of them have been negotiating new compacts with the Governor’s Office to replace existing agreements that expire next year.

Those five include the Navajo Nation and Pojoaque Pueblo, which is asking the U.S. Department of the Interior to step in after failing to reach agreement with Martinez’s office.

Zuni Gov. Arlen Quetawki, Sr. said Friday that the downturn in the economy and dwindling federal and state funds have the tribe exploring its options.

“It’s not to say we’re going to have a casino tomorrow morning somewhere on our reservation. It’s going to be a long process,” Quetawki told the Journal. “We just decided it’s time to start considering that.”

Last summer, after more than 15 years of negotiations, Zuni Pueblo and the Navajo Nation reached an agreement to divide roughly in half more than 18,000 acres at Fort Wingate Army Depot near Gallup, including some land for both tribes along Interstate 40.

The transfer of the land from the federal government to the tribes must still be approved by Congress; a resolution introduced by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., is pending in subcommittees of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Asked late last week if Zuni’s prospective land along I-40 could be a site for a casino, Quetawki said, “Could be.” But he said there are other economic development possibilities for the site, which has a rail spur, a natural gas pipeline and electricity.

A feasibility study would have to be done to determine the best location for a casino, the governor said.

The Navajo Nation would not put a casino on its portion of the Fort Wingate property because it’s so close to the tribe’s Fire Rock Navajo Casino just east of Gallup and because of the proximity of other tribes’ casinos, according to Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation’s Washington, D.C., office.

Quetawki said it’s unclear at this point whether the Zunis would want to sign on to the 2007 compact that nine other tribes are operating under or whether it would negotiate its own compact.

“That will be the discussion with the state,” Quetawki said.

Jemez Pueblo Gov. Joshua Madalena told Martinez in a Jan. 31 letter that, while the pueblo has backed off its pursuit of a casino project between Las Cruces and El Paso, it “continues to pursue its interest in economic development through gaming.”

The letter provided no details about where the tribe might put a casino, nor whether the tribe would want to sign the 2007 compact or negotiate its own. It requested a meeting “to discuss an execution of a gaming compact.”

The pueblo “has not had a gaming compact with the state before, and we are not aware of Jemez being involved in compact negotiations in the past,” Hernandez said.

Madalena and other tribal officials could not be reached for comment late last week. A spokeswoman in Madalena’s office said they were participating in a traditional cultural activity and were not available.

Jemez, in partnership with Santa Fe art dealer and businessman Gerald Peters, tried over a 10-year period to get Interior Department approval for a $72 million casino and hotel in Anthony in Doña Ana County, nearly 300 miles away. The proposal was rebuffed twice, with the federal government refusing in 2011 to take the land along Interstate 10 into trust for the project because of concerns about the pueblo’s ability to exercise jurisdiction on the site.

Madalena’s letter to Martinez said the pueblo “officially withdrew this project” in November because of all the obstacles.

The Navajos, meanwhile, are trying to figure out what to do next.

“The nation is exploring its options, and we plan to continue working with the nation to agree on a new compact before the expiration of their compact,” Hernandez said.

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