As Bay State Governor Pushes Deal On Indian Casino, Doubts Abound
BOSTON — Four centuries ago in what is now Massachusetts, the Pilgrims and the Indians shared a meal of thanksgiving with turkey as the main course. Today, their descendants are preparing to feast together again, this time on casino profits.
As Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) draws nearer to a deal with the Wampanoag Indian tribe to build a $150 million casino and theme park outside the city of New Bedford, polls show state residents are evenly divided on the issue.
``There is no strong pro-casino advocacy in Massachusetts,'' says Lou DiNatale of the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts. ``People in this state still have a puritanical streak, and they certainly don't want to see casinos dotting the horizon.''
An April survey by Clark University in Worcester, Mass., showed state Republicans strongly oppose the plan. Mr. DiNatale contends that Governor Weld is pushing the casino both to increase state revenue without raising taxes and to earn political support in economically depressed southeastern Massachusetts, an area he lost decisively in the last election.
``It's like bread and circus,'' Mr. DiNatale says. ``Casinos are Weld's way of appealing to working-class voters by generating low-end jobs and giving them the kind of entertainment they like.''
Yet even if Weld and the Wampanoags shake hands on a casino deal, the bulldozers will have to wait.
A 1988 federal law does permit Indian tribes to open casinos with state and federal approval. But the Wampanoag land lies on Martha's Vineyard, a picturesque island whose upscale residents would welcome a casino about as heartily as a state prison.
In order to open a casino in New Bedford, the Wampanoags would have to take land there into tribal trust, a proposition some legislators say is legally questionable. The Massachusetts legislature, which has already blocked a Weld proposal for riverboat gambling, has vowed that no casino will be built in Massachusetts without its consent.
``This is a very emotional and controversial issue,'' says State Sen. Mark Roosevelt (D), one of Weld's rivals in the state gubernatorial race. ``For the governor to think he can make such an important policy decision without the legislature is crazy.''
Jeffrey Madison, head of economic development for the Wampanoag tribe, says any doubt about the gambling market in New England has been erased by the Pequot Indian-owned Foxwoods Casino across the border in Ledyard, Conn. Foxwoods generated $700 million last year, making it the nation's most profitable casino.
In addition, Mr. Madison notes that the people of New Bedford, the mayor, and the entire city council strongly support the plan. Just last week, Mayor Rosemary Tierney agreed to sell the Wampanoags a municipal golf course that could be part of the casino complex. ``Citizens usually get what they want in their own community,'' Madison says.
In tandem with their partner, the Miami-based Carnival Hotels and Casinos, Madison says, the Wampanoags would provide 3,500 construction jobs immediately, and 7,000 permanent jobs when the casino opens. The operation would reportedly guarantee between $80 and $100 million annually to the state.
``I don't know of any other organization that is offering this kind of development deal,'' Madison says. ``I'm convinced that it will become apparent to everyone in Massachusetts, as it has to the governor, that casinos make sense.''
In a report issued last October, Steven Gold, director of the Center for the Study of the States in Albany, N.Y., concluded that casinos increase compulsive gambling, require substantial investments in infrastructure and services like police, and undermine the work ethic by offering ``something for nothing.''
Of the 19 states that have some form of casino gambling, the report says, revenues are not significant enough to ``reduce reliance on other taxes or solve state fiscal problems.''
In addition, the report warns that as more states build casinos, traffic from neighboring states will decline. Not only will revenues and tax benefits diminish then, but the casinos will increasingly cannibalize on other local businesses by soaking up consumers' discretionary income.
In answer, Madison argues that ``there is more than enough unsatisfied demand in New England to make this casino profitable'' and that additional Indian casinos are impossible in Massachusetts because the Wampanoags are the only federally recognized tribe in the state.
Comparisons between Indian casinos and private gambling operations are disingenuous, he argues, because federal law dictates that revenues from Indian casinos must support tribal programs.
``Our casino revenues will go to housing, day care, elder care, and scholarships,'' he says. ``In casinos in places like Atlantic City, the money goes right into pockets of people like Donald Trump.''