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Navajos upset that pact didn’t get a vote

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — Navajo Nation leaders expressed their frustration after lawmakers failed to vote on a new state-tribal gambling compact, saying they followed the state process for negotiating gambling agreements but came away empty-handed.

Failure to deal with the proposal in the closing days of the just-finished session meant legislative approval for a new compact with the Navajo Nation is likely put off for a year.

President Ben Shelly said in a statement issued as the annual session was ending Saturday that the tribe was “very disappointed” the proposed compact it had negotiated with Gov. Susana Martinez’s office wasn’t put to a vote.

The agreement — proposed as a replacement for a compact currently in effect between the state and tribe — was presented to lawmakers with only a week left in the 60-day session and immediately ran into opposition from some lawmakers and other tribes and pueblos. The other gambling tribes didn’t like its terms and worried it would become a template for their own negotiations with the state.

The fuss was enough to derail it for the 2013 session.

“I just think it was too late in the session,” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said Monday.

The governor notified Muñoz and legislative leaders on March 8 that she and the Navajos had reached an agreement, and sent them further changes to the compact proposal on March 11.

The Legislative Committee on Compacts, which Muñoz chairs, held a hastily called meeting on March 12 and endorsed the compact 11-4. But Muñoz never followed up by referring the matter to the full Senate.

Muñoz said the compact-related issues are complex and many lawmakers — especially the more than 30 percent who were new this year — don’t yet have a grasp of them. In the last few days of the session, with legislators running around trying to make sure their bills were passed, it would have been “almost impossible” to deal with the compact, he said.

“I think it’s hard to come in there toward the end of a session and say, ‘Just approve this,’ ” the lawmaker said.

Muñoz also questioned whether the agreement in the compact on promotional “free play” — which has been a matter of dispute for several years between tribes and the state’s Gaming Control Board — is legal. At issue is whether tribes are paying the state less than they should in so-called revenue sharing because they deduct from their bottom line the jackpots paid to casino customers who play for free.

The state Gaming Control Board says the state is losing millions as a result of the deductions — an estimated $20 million to $40 million over the past five years.

The proposed compact with the Navajo Nation says the tribe may deduct 65 percent of its free-play payouts. The tribe separately has paid the state $500,000 to settle back free-play payments.

The Pueblo of Pojoaque said in a March 14 letter to Martinez that the state’s demand for revenue sharing on free play is not consistent with federal regulations, calling it a “new tax” that is “unjust and ill-conceived” and burdensome to tribes.

Pojoaque was among four other tribes that were negotiating with Martinez’s office for a new compact along with the Navajos until they dropped out of the talks because they didn’t like the deal. The five tribes’ current compacts end in 2015.

The agreement reached by the Navajos and the Governor’s Office raised the Navajos’ revenue-sharing rate from the current 8 percent of “net win” to 9.75 percent, and potentially to 10.75 percent by 2037, when the pact would expire.

It also authorized the tribe to have five casinos; it now has two covered by the current compact.

Muñoz, who has asked state Attorney General Gary King to weigh in on the free-play issue, said he expects the Legislative Committee on Compacts to meet a couple of times during the summer to listen to the concerns of gambling tribes on free play and other issues.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal