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Panel backs new gambling compact

SANTA FE – A legislative committee on Saturday recommended the full Legislature approve a new gambling compact that was negotiated between Gov. Susana Martinez and a small group of Indian tribes, including the Navajo Nation.

The Committee on Compacts voted 15-1 to endorse the agreement after a daylong meeting.

The only negative vote was cast by Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who said New Mexico is saturated with gambling and the new agreements could mean a total of 20,000 machines in the state.

In updated figures presented to the committee, the Martinez administration said there are 26 casinos in the state now – although some consist of just a few machines in convenience stores – and estimated the new compact could mean five more.

Under state law, the committee couldn’t change the compact, but it could recommend that provisions be renegotiated between the governor and the tribes.

The committee, however, rejected all the proposals to request changes, including one that would have restricted the Navajo Nation to three casinos, rather than the four the new compact would allow.

The tribes are anxious to get the compacts moving through the Legislature, which adjourns March 21, because their existing compacts that authorize them to operate casinos expire June 30.

The tribes that would sign the pact are the Navajo Nation, Acoma Pueblo, the Jicarilla Apaches, the Mescalero Apaches and Jemez Pueblo. Jemez does not yet have a casino.

The committee rejected a proposal to eliminate language that would keep the Fort Sill Apache Tribe from signing the compact.

Peppered with questions from legislators, the Martinez administration denied that the provision is specifically aimed at the tribe.

“This is not singling out Fort Sill,” said Jessica Hernandez, the governor’s chief counsel and lead negotiator. The administration says the tribe does not yet have land in New Mexico that the federal government has approved for gambling.

Hernandez said the provision was intended to ensure that any tribes wanting to put a casino on land it acquired after 1988 would have to negotiate separately with the state because of the different circumstances surrounding them.

The Fort Sill Apaches on Friday asked the state Supreme Court to order Martinez to sign a compact with the tribe, saying she has twice ignored requests to do so.

The petition to the court said the governor is “attempting to run out the clock” until the new compact is in place that will effectively eliminate its rights.

Also rejected was a change sought by the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving that would have allowed Indian casinos to be sued not just by injured patrons – which the compact allows – but also by those off of tribal land, for example motorists hit by drivers who drank too much at casinos.

The Navajo Nation could build a casino after six years under the compact, and Laguna Pueblo complained Saturday that it would likely be built along Interstate 40, near Laguna’s Route 66 casino. Lt. Gov. David Martinez said the Albuquerque gambling market is saturated, and another casino would jeopardize its business and undercut its investment.