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House OKs gambling compact allowing 3 more Navajo casinos

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Navajo Nation would be able to open three new casinos – for a total of five – under a gambling compact with the state that won approval from the House on Tuesday.

With less than two days left in the legislative session, the compact headed to the state Senate, where tribal officials hoped to get the required OK before the Legislature adjourns at noon Thursday.

Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, speaks during debate Tuesday on a new Navajo gambling compact.(Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, speaks during debate Tuesday on a new Navajo gambling compact.(Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

The vote was 36-30, with opponents concerned about more casinos in a saturated gambling market and the impact of some of the compact’s provisions on other tribes’ negotiations.

“It’s economic development. That’s the bottom line,” said Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, who voted for it.

Other gambling tribes are fretting that the Navajos would put a casino on tribal land along Interstate 40, competing with existing pueblo-owned casinos in the area.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said after the vote that another casino would be “a long, long way off” because the tribe first needs to focus on improvements to its existing casinos.

Any new casinos would be phased in at five-year intervals, starting in 2019 if the compact were approved this year.

Most other gambling tribes are limited to two casinos under their agreements, but compact supporters said the cap of five casinos is warranted because of the size of the Navajo Nation – more than 100,000 tribal members in six New Mexico counties.

The compact negotiated over the past two years between the tribe and Gov. Susana Martinez’s office would last until 2037 and replace one that expires June 30, 2015. Critics said that leaves plenty of time for more negotiations and there was no hurry to approve it now.

Shelly said waiting until next year would be cutting it too close to the expiration date, raising the prospect that the federal government could shut down the Navajos’ existing casinos, which employ 950 people. The uncertainty surrounding a new compact also could affect business dealings, he said.

Other tribes still negotiating compacts don’t like some provisions of the Navajo pact and are concerned it could become a template for their own talks.

There was criticism of a provision that would require the tribe to check a list of people delinquent in child support before paying out jackpots of more than $1,200. Critics said that the tribe would be doing the state’s work and that the provision would violate tribal sovereignty.