Proposed $1 billion Casino in Balance

Publish: 09.09.2018
A Friday ruling by the Trump administration has created problems for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. The new ruling will take away 321 acres of land taken into trust for the tribe by the former Obama administration. Two years into Trump’s Presidentship and regulatory uncertainty, the US Department of Interior has finally debilitated the hopes of the Cape tribe. A $1-billion Taunton casino project in the region is now in the cold water.

The agency, designed to protect the tribal trust assets, was sued in 2016 by Taunton neighbors, where the casino resort was proposed. A federal judge from US District Court ruled that the land was not under federal jurisdiction at the time of Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Hence, the Secretary of Interior’s decision of taking the land under trust in 2015 was not valid.

The 1934 law is the primary determinant of Indian affairs in the US that includes provisions like self-government. Most lawsuits over land entrusted to Indians have since been viewed under the scope of four words- “now under federal jurisdiction.” This has created troubles for tribes and their newly acquired lands. The department has since sought ways to define if the state of Massachusetts exercised any kind of control over the tribe that qualified as ‘federal jurisdiction.’

On Friday, Tara Sweeney, the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs wrote a letter to Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell, confirming that the department did not find enough evidence to indicate that the tribe was under federal jurisdiction. The letter also explains that Mashpee do not fulfill either the first or second definition of ‘Indian’ by the IRA.

The tribe is waiting for a Congressional approval that reinstates their right to the land and end all litigation forever. US Rep. William Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat, has introduced the legislation and a twin bill in the Senate for the same.

The fate of the Taunton casino is hanging on a thread until the congressional verdict is out. If established, the casino could have given its competitors in Tiverton and Lincoln in Rhode Island a run for their money. A 2017 market study by Christiansen Capital Advisors suggested that the proposed casino could have led to a decline in Rhode Island casino revenue by $49.8 million in fiscal 2022 alone. Another $13.7 million would vanish in 2023.

Rhode Island’s state revenue depends heavily on gambling, which brings in the third largest share of the collections. If Taunton casino project had started, they would have lost $26.1 million in state revenue in the first year alone.