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In the just completed legislative session, the Senate shot down the proposed Navajo Nation gaming compact, which was years in the making. After hearing all the testimony and talking to some of the players afterward, I think the Navajos got a raw deal.
Five other pueblos and tribes whose compacts expire next year are also getting a raw deal. It’s because of the way the negotiations and the compacts themselves have evolved.
Sifting through the wreckage, you find immediately the strenuous objections of other gaming tribes who are also in line to negotiate new compacts: the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache tribes and Acoma, Laguna and Pojoaque pueblos. (Acoma in particular, with two strong voices in the Legislature, was the mouse that roared.) Their leaders made an eloquent case during hearings, and they had a host of lobbyists working behind the scenes.
Add to that some influential Albuquerque legislators, who feel their city has more than enough casinos, plus a certain number who just don’t like gaming. And then, I’m told, the governor threatened to veto the capital outlay of any Republican who didn’t support the Navajo compact. House Republicans lined up like good soldiers, and the compact passed 36 to 30. The Senate, known for its independence, got its back up and voted against, 31 to 10, with one recusal.
The other tribes objected to the number and location of casinos. The Navajos want five — three more than the two they have. (A third, small class 2 casino doesn’t count.) They argued that the tribe’s large size and desperate need for jobs justify the number. Too many, said tiny Pojoaque Pueblo, which has four casinos. Too many, said Laguna Pueblo, which has three.
A real worry for Acoma and Laguna is that Navajos will build a casino at Tohajilee, west of Albuquerque. Their worries are justified. Both have significant investments in their own facilities, and gaming revenues for all the tribes are flat. The market is not growing, so each new casino takes business from the others.
Dig a little deeper, and the word “template” comes up. During hearings last summer and the two during the session, the other five gaming tribes asserted again and again that the Navajo compact would become the template for their own. The governor’s negotiator, Jessica Hernandez, denied this was the case.
The five tribes simply don’t believe that. Why is that?
Imagine that you have six teenagers who all want to drive the family car, but you are discussing the car with only one of your kids. Imagine the impact on the others.
For unknown reasons, the governor’s office chose to negotiate first with the Navajos and not with the others. Maybe it’s because the Navajo Nation was the most willing to come to the table. Maybe it’s because it seemed easier, especially to people inexperienced in the compact process, to negotiate with one at a time.
The effect, whatever the reason, has been to create mistrust. It also had the unfortunate effect of pitting one tribe against the other.
The day of the Senate vote, Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, said he couldn’t support the compact because the pueblos in his area — his constituents — were opposed. He also said all the tribes should come to the table at the same time to negotiate one compact for all.
This might have worked when none of them had casinos, but it won’t work today. The tribes are different, their casinos are different, and their customers are different. Each deserves a tailored compact.
While they’re at it, negotiators need to see the casinos as a form of economic development and not saddle them with conditions that hinder their ability to compete.