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N.M., Indian Gaming Pact Talks Stall

By Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writer
    Nine New Mexico Indian tribes and the state have broken off talks aimed at renegotiating their 2001 casino gambling agreements.
    The talks— which ended late last month with no new deals— were part of the tribes' quest to boost casino business.
    "Trying to get new patrons to the state of New Mexico is the idea," said Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuwart Paisano, who added that he might ask for another round of talks later this year.
    The tribes, which pay the state tens of millions of dollars in slot-machine profits each year in exchange for limited gambling competition, want to be able to offer free food and hotel rooms to bolster their casinos' business edge.
    The tribes also don't want their competitors— namely nontribal horse track/casino operations— to have more business opportunities, such as expanded hours.
    Gov. Bill Richardson, however, has said the tribes would have to give the state additional casino revenue-sharing for any changes. Meanwhile, New Mexico restaurant owners object to some of the tribal proposals.
    Paisano this week said he believes the tribes and the state were close to striking a deal, though he declined to provide specifics. Such a deal would have required legislative approval, and a business-packed 30-day session wrapped up last week.
    "We just ran short of time," Paisano said. "(With) some of the things the Legislature had on its table this year ... it possibly wasn't a good time to address gaming."
    He said his pueblo plans to contact Richardson's office in a few months to potentially begin talks again.
    The other tribes abiding by the 2001 gambling compacts with the state will have to decide for themselves if they also want to go to Round 2, said Frank Chaves, chairman of the New Mexico Indian Gaming Association.
    "The goal ... is to have all the gaming tribes on board, supporting one common compact," Paisano said.
    The original 1997 compacts between the tribes and the state specified that the tribes would turn over 16 percent of their slot profits to the state. But those compacts were renegotiated in 2001, largely because of continuing tribal objections to the 16 percent rate, and the state's slot cut was reduced to no more than 8 percent.
    The nine tribes formally requested another round of renegotiation at various points last year. Preliminary talks with the state began in November, Chaves said, and Richardson appointed former state Attorney General Paul Bardacke to negotiate on Richardson's behalf.
    The 2001 compacts do not allow tribal casinos to offer free or reduced-price food and lodging.
    Paisano has said that giving tribes the ability to "comp" food and rooms would allow them to bring in more business, and more business would in turn benefit the state's tourism industry overall.
    The New Mexico Restaurant Association fought against any free-food provisions for the tribes before the signing of the 1997 compacts, believing it would give the casinos an unfair advantage for customers.
    Carol Wight, chief executive officer of the association, said Wednesday she believes that even some casinos' current promotions— offering free food for special events, for instance— violate the current compacts.
    "Therein lies the problem with the compacts: Where is the final authority? Who does the enforcement? We don't know," Wight said.
    The compacts specify that tribes have the "exclusive right" over casino gambling. But they also say the state's allowance of slot gambling at nontribal horse tracks is not a violation of compact agreements.
    The tracks pay tens of millions of dollars to the state each year in their own form of revenue-sharing.
    A bill to expand slot-room hours at the tracks was approved by the House earlier this year but did not reach a Senate vote: A similar bill died during last year's regular session. The Indian Gaming Association battled both bills, claiming they could be a violation of the compacts.
    Chaves said he expects such fights to continue until the compacts are clarified on what track gambling should be limited to.
    The 2001 compacts expire in 2015. Tribal casinos currently must close four hours each day except for weekends and holidays, when they can operate 24 hours.
    Paisano said paying a higher percentage of slot profits for concessions from the state was discussed during the recent negotiations.
    "We weren't able to get the majority of the tribes on board. There were some 'yeses' and some 'maybes,' '' he said. "It was just taking too much time, and we didn't have that time."
    Richardson's office on Wednesday did not provide many specifics on the negotiations but released a portion of a Jan. 30 letter the governor sent to the nine tribes.
    "We made some progress over the past months that we should build upon should these discussions ever resume," Richardson wrote.