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Editorial: Pojoaque’s bid for federal compact bad play for NM

Pojoaque Pueblo is rolling the dice in a “winner takes all” game of chance.

The pueblo is pursuing a gambling compact through federal channels that would cut the state out of the gambling revenue game by keeping all of its slot machine winnings. That could mean a $5 million hit to state coffers. The state would lose oversight of the tribe’s gambling operation, which includes the Cities of Gold and Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, both in Pojoaque, north of Santa Fe.

Pojoaque also wants the minimum age for gambling reduced to 18 in its casinos. Under the existing state tribal gaming compacts it’s 21. The tribe also wants state restrictions removed that ban serving alcohol in gambling areas; prohibit cashing payroll, Social Security or welfare checks at casinos; limit the number of gambling facilities; and set certain personal injury remedies for casino customers.

If it wins, the gaming landscape could change dramatically. Initially, other gaming tribes could lose out because Pojoaque would get a huge competitive edge.

Pojoaque is one of five tribes whose state compacts expire after June 2015. The others – Acoma Pueblo, the Navajo Nation and the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache tribes – are still negotiating with the state but might follow Pojoaque’s lead and try to get the same federal deal. In fact, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t. Nine other tribes have compacts that extend to 2037 and arguably can’t really do anything now – except perhaps lament the fact they would be at a huge disadvantage.

Pojoaque took its proposal to the U.S. Department of the Interior after negotiations with the Gov. Susana Martinez administration broke down over the existing compact. Among issues in dispute, the state wanted to gradually increase the state’s cut from 8 percent to 10.5 percent.

The tribe sued the state in federal court alleging bad faith. A judge threw the lawsuit out in March, citing the state’s sovereign immunity. The tribe believes that makes it eligible for a process under which the department’s secretary could issue a compact. Interior notified the offices of the governor and Attorney General Gary King that on May 9, Pojoaque had submitted its gambling proposal. They have 60 days to submit comments or alternative proposals.

It seems unlikely the federal government would cut the state out of the gaming picture after it approved Indian gaming and limited other non-Indian gambling activities and racinos.

But if it does, the consequences could be significant. No longer would the state have oversight of some gaming operations, but state taxpayers would still be on the hook to provide services to contend with the negative consequences associated with gaming – compulsive gambling, drug and alcohol abuse, increased crime and poor work attendance. Lowering the gambling age would lure in younger gamblers who can ill afford to lose and who should be paying off college loan debt and working their way up a career ladder.

The only winner in this game of chance would be Pojoaque Pueblo. The big loser would be the state of New Mexico and its people.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.