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Mashpee tribe reaches deal with governor on casino

A Mashpee Wampanoag tribal casino would pay 21.5 percent of its gambling revenue to the state, slightly less than the tax rate on commercial ­casino operators, under a negotiated agreement announced Wednesday between the Native American tribe and Governor Deval Patrick.

The agreement, which outlines the terms under which the casino could operate, is a key milestone in the Mashpee’s long effort to win federal approval to host tribal gambling.

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But the agreement, known under federal law as a compact, does not in itself guarantee there will ever be a casino at the tribe’s chosen site in Taunton. Stubborn legal obstacles ­remain that could delay final approval for years, if not for­ever.

In the short term, finalizing the agreement, which must now be approved by the Legislature, is critical to the tribe ­because it effectively extends a prohibition on commercial ­casinos in Southeastern Massachusetts.

The delay on commercial projects gives the tribe valuable time to make progress toward winning federal approval without fear of a competitor establishing a foothold in the market.

The compact negotiations have gone on for several months under extreme deadline pressure. Under the state’s casino law, if the compact is not finished and approved by the Legislature by the end of this month, the state gambling commission is required to solicit bids for a commercial casino ­license in the southeast.

“This is a good deal for every­one,” Patrick said in a statement. “If this compact is approved, it will allow the Mashpee Wampanoag to open a unique facility that is governed and regulated by the tribe itself, in partnership with the state.”

Patrick will submit the agreement to the Legislature Thursday morning.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council approved the tentative pact Wednesday, said the chairman, Cedric Cromwell.

“This is the first step in an economic development plan that will bring long-term prosperity to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, while also bringing much needed job oppor­tunities and revenue to the Commonwealth,” Cromwell said in a statement.

The agreement, reportedly 60 pages long, has not been made public, though the governor’s office has divulged some of the key points.

The financial terms of the compact are less favorable to the state than the law governing commercial casino operators. Under the 2011 state casino law, commercial gambling resorts will pay 25 percent of gambling revenue in state taxes, as well as a minimum $85 million licensing fee, a huge, one-time cost the tribe will not be required to pay.

But the state cannot apply its casino law to the Mashpee because a tribal casino does not need a state license. As a sovereign nation, the Mashpee have the right to pursue a casino ­under a federal law, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Hundreds of tribal ­casinos have been built in the United States under the act, includ­ing Foxwoods and ­Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Tribal casinos are approved by the federal government under a process that is mostly outside state control.

Tribal-state compacts also must be reviewed and approved by the US Department of the ­Interior, which will scrutinize the agreement to ensure that the tribe is not giving up too much, said Steven Light, codirector of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota.

Tribes are permitted to trade revenue for considerations from the state, said Light, “but this can’t be a fee that is tantamount to a tax.”

He said that among recent tribal-state compacts, a revenue sharing rate of 21.5 percent would be high.

The compact also calls for a Taunton tribal casino to be smoke-free, the same as commercial resorts. The Taunton resort would primarily be regulated by a newly formed Tribal Gaming Commission. State regulators would have the right to inspect the casino and its books, and State Police would respond to normal 911 calls, accord­ing to Patrick’s office.

Even if the federal government approves the compact, the Mashpee still face an enormous obstacle to building a tribal casino: land.

Tribal gambling can only ­occur on Indian land, and the Mashpee do not have any land that qualifies. The tribe has asked the federal government to take the proposed Taunton casino site into trust on the tribe’s behalf, which would make the land eligible for tribal gambling. But the land-in-trust process could take years and ­require an act of Congress.

The governor agreed in the compact to actively support the tribe’s land-in-trust application.

Critics of the tribal casino plan say the southeast region could suffer if the tribe cannot solve its land problems for many years.

“Approving a compact with a landless tribe makes no sense,” said Andrew Stern, managing director of KG Urban Enterprises, a developer that wants to build a casino in New Bedford. “The best solution is the simplest and most obvious one: The southeast region deserves the same fair and competitive commercial licensing process that the governor and Legislature themselves decided was best for the rest of the state.”

KG has sued the state in an attempt to open the southeast region to bidding by commercial casino developers.

Mark Arsenault can be reached
at marsenault@globe.com. ­
Follow him on Twitter
@bostonglobemark.
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