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Adrian Walker

Mashpee Wampanoag possibly gave too much

Did the Mashpee Wampanoag underplay their hand?

The Cape Cod-based Native American tribe appeared to win a major victory — however provisionally — last week, when it won legislative approval for a piece of the state’s gaming action. The tribe is hoping to open a resort casino in Taunton.

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But as detailed yesterday in a report by the Globe’s Mark Arsenault, the tribe may have made so many concessions that it will struggle to win approval from the federal Department of the Interior, which must approve its compact with the state. The worry is that the deal could be seen as shortchanging the tribe.

Two provisions are especially likely to get a close look, experts say. Under the agreement, the tribe agreed to pay the state 21.5 percent of the revenues generated by the casino. That figure is, compared with other tribal agreements, ludicrous. But it is, in theory, the price of holding exclusive rights to the gaming business in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Which leads us to the second potential problem with the compact: The tribe has agreed to pay the state 15 percent if another casino is allowed in.

In other words, it stands to pay dearly for exclusive rights to part of the state. But it would still pay a hefty percentage of its winnings even if the state allows another casino to open in the same territory.

Some would argue that it has agreed to be fleeced, and compacts have been rejected for less. Rejection of the deal would not close the door on the Mashpee casino. More likely, it would send the tribe and the state back to the bargaining table. And of course, any proposed casino is years away from opening. But any delay would certainly come as bad news for the Mashpee’s longstanding dream of casino riches.

The Mashpee Wampanoag agreed to the deal partly in exchange for the state’s active support in winning federal approval, and it was negotiated under a tight deadline mandated by the state’s gaming law. While compromise was unavoidable, a deal that cannot pass federal muster hardly stands to benefit either side.

William Delahunt, the former congressman who has been lobbying on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoag, noted yesterday that the review period has yet to begin because the compact has not been submitted to the federal government, suggesting that concern might be premature. Cedric Cromwell, Mashpee Wampanoag chairman, could not, unfortunately, be reached for comment. Cromwell has been an evangelist for a Mashpee Wampanoag casino for years. A Boston native, he won a hard-fought battle for chairman mostly because of his vision of what gaming could do for his beleaguered nation. He argued that the influx of dollars from gambling could help offset a host of woes among the tribe, including a high dropout rate and a prevalence of chronic diseases. That may be a lot to expect one casino to fix, and I wonder if he has any concerns that he may have given too much away at the bargaining table.

“I think we have a bright future, and casinos will be the engine of that future,” Cromwell told me a year ago. “History is written by the victors, and we have a chance to be victors and rewrite that history.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that the march to a Native American casino would hit a snag. After all, little has gone smoothly in our state’s painful pursuit of gaming. Consider the deep ambivalence of the public and politicians, the struggles to properly staff the gaming commission, and the resistance of some cities and towns to alter their historic character with a casino. Virtually every signal has been mixed.

Still, the Mashpee Wampanoag have succeeded where many expected them to fail. They have won public support from once-skeptical Taunton residents. They have navigated the back rooms of the State House, displaying, if nothing else, dogged perseverance. But in the next couple of months, they will find out if they surrendered too much in the process.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ Adrian_Walker.
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