- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A proposed tribal-state gambling compact that would allow the Navajo Nation to open additional casinos cleared the House on Tuesday. But one more hurdle remains before the Legislature adjourns this week.

The compact must be approved by the House and Senate, as well as the U.S. Interior Department, to take effect.

The House approved the proposal on a 36-30 vote and sent it to the Senate to consider as the legislative session neared an end. Lawmakers will adjourn on Thursday.

The Navajos - New Mexico’s largest American Indian tribe- contend that the new compact is critical for future economic development and to protect its existing casinos.

“It’s a good thing for the people,” Navajo President Ben Shelly told reporters after the vote.

The tribe negotiated the proposed agreement with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

The Navajos operate two Las Vegas-style casinos in New Mexico - near Gallup and Farmington - under a compact expiring in mid-2015, and a third casino near Shiprock offers low-stakes gambling not subject to state regulation.

Those casinos employ 950 people.

The proposed compact would extend to 2037 and permit the Navajos to phase in three additional casinos over 15 years.

Shelly said the tribe likely would upgrade its existing casinos, potentially adding a conference center, hotel or golf course, before developing a new casino.

“I foresee another casino being built to be a long, long way off,” he said.

Rep. Sandra Jeff, a Crownpoint Democrat who is Navajo, said the compact offered the potential for economic development.

“It will help the Navajo people, who are my people, with the keeping of their jobs, and if they open up another facility it will be more jobs for the Navajo people,” Jeff said.

The compact has faced opposition from other pueblos and tribes.

The Acoma and Laguna pueblos have warned that their casinos along Interstate 40 would suffer, potentially jeopardizing tribal jobs and services, if the Navajos open a new casino on tribal lands near Albuquerque.

A compact opponent, Democratic Rep. Georgene Louis of Albuquerque, expressed concerns that the gambling market already is saturated in New Mexico with more than 20 casinos operated by 14 tribes. Five horse-racing tracks in New Mexico also have casinos.

“I’m just afraid there’s not the market for more facilities,” said Louis, who worked in a casino while attending college.

She raised the possibility that workers at existing casinos could lose their jobs if the Navajos open additional casinos.

“I am worried because I have constituents and I have family and I have friends that work and support their families by jobs at facilities that are very close to Albuquerque,” Louis said.

But Navajo officials have said there are no definite plans to expand gambling.

The Navajos could start to open new casinos five years after the proposed compact is approved. At that point, the Navajos could operate a third casino. A fourth casino would be allowed after 10 years and a fifth after 15 years.

There is no limit on casinos under the current compact with the Navajos and four other tribes - the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches as well as Acoma and Pojoaque pueblos.

Nine other New Mexico tribes have different compacts with the state, approved in 2007, and they can only operate two casinos.

The latest compact requires the Navajos to make payments to the state under the same terms as tribes covered by the 2007 agreements. Those rates are higher than what the Navajos currently pay.

Tribal casino payments to the state are based on slot-machine proceeds from wagering after a deduction for how much gamblers win.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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