Impact on tribes' gambling plans uncertain as voters to consider repealing state's casino law

With voters to consider repealing Massachusetts' controversial casino law in November, local officials and gambling experts say there's still uncertainty around what becomes of plans floated by two federally recognized American Indian tribes.

The Mashpee Wampanoags want to build a $500 million resort casino in an industrial park in Taunton, a city 37 miles south of Boston, assuming it gets federal approval to take the land into trust. The Aquinnah Wampanoags, meanwhile, want to turn an unfinished community center on its tribal lands on Martha's Vineyard into a gambling hall with high stakes bingo and poker machines.

Repeal the Casino Deal, the anti-casino group that proposed the ballot question, says it's confident a successful repeal of the law would spell the end for these tribe-backed plans.

The group says the 2012 casino deal reached between the Mashpee tribe and Gov. Deval Patrick's administration includes language specifically negating the plan if slot machines and table games like blackjack, craps and roulette become illegal again as a result of a successful repeal of the 2011 casino law. The law authorized the opening of at least three Las Vegas-style casinos and one slot parlor in the state.

As to the Aquinnah, Repeal the Casino Deal says the tribe long ago forfeited its rights to open a casino.

Under a 1983 accord, the tribe took ownership of 400 acres on the western tip of Martha's Vineyard but agreed that the state's jurisdiction would never be "impaired or otherwise altered" and the tribe would not "exercise sovereign jurisdiction" over the lands. That agreement is central to the state's pending federal lawsuit seeking to block the tribe's casino plan.

Casino opponents say voters should have the chance to weigh in on the casino law, which was approved by the legislature and signed into law by the governor.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation, declined to speak on the record this week. But in a statement, she declared that the repeal question has "no direct impact" on the tribe's plans. "We will continue with our casino project and look forward to the opportunities it will provide for our tribal members and the local community," Andrews-Maltais said.

Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, also declined to be interviewed, saying the tribe is still reviewing the implications of the court's decision.

The state is similarly reserving comment. State Attorney General Martha Coakley deferred questions to Patrick's office, which said it will "assess any ramifications of a repeal" on the Mashpee compact.

But Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye, who supports the tribe's casino plan, is confident his city will have some form of American Indian-owned gambling facility, regardless of the outcome of the repeal. "The question," he said, "becomes what type of gaming will be allowed."

Hoye says a repeal would rule out familiar, coin-based slot machines and tables games. Federal law allows tribes to offer those games — officially called Class III games — only if local law permits it in the rest of the state.

But games in which players compete against one another (rather than against the house) are permissible, Hoye says. Those include poker, bingo and their electronic counterparts.

Cezar Froelich, Taunton's Chicago-based outside legal counsel on casino matters, says electronic versions of Class II games look and feel similar to typical slot machines.

And Clyde W. Barrow, a gambling expert at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, suggests they can be just as lucrative as for the tribes. "The Seminole Tribe of Florida built a $2 billion a year gaming empire on Class II gaming," he said. "And Oklahoma is now the fourth largest gaming venue in the U.S., based on revenue, built entirely on Class II gaming."