- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A legislative panel asked the Navajo Nation and Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration on Friday to renegotiate a proposed compact to restrict the state’s largest tribe to their existing casinos rather than allowing an expansion of gambling.

But Navajo leaders oppose the requested change by the Committee on Compacts.

“We can deal with it in 15 minutes. You know our position,” Navajo Council Delegate LoRenzo Bates told lawmakers after they voted 9-5 to recommend that negotiators return to the bargaining table.

At issue is a provision of the compact that would allow the tribe to open three additional casinos over 15 years.

The Navajos operate two Las Vegas-style casinos in New Mexico under a compact expiring next year - one near Gallup and the other near Farmington. A third Navajo casino offers low-stakes gambling not subject to state regulation.

Other tribes and pueblos have voiced opposition to the new compact because it would allow the Navajos to operate the additional high-stakes casinos. The Laguna and Acoma pueblos contend their casinos would be hurt if the Navajos expand gambling close to Albuquerque.

The committee adopted a proposal by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, a Grants Democrat, asking that the compact be rewritten to limit the Navajos to their current casinos but allow the conversion of the low-stakes facility near Shiprock to Las Vegas-style gambling, which includes slot machines as well as table games such as roulette and blackjack.

The committee rejected calls by another lawmaker for other possible compact changes, including lifting a longstanding prohibition on alcohol in areas where gambling is allowed in a casino. Some tribes that operate resort casinos want the option of serving liquor to gamblers, which they contend will help them compete with out-of-state casinos.

Sanchez and other critics of the Navajo compact said they don’t want it to set a precedent and become the model for other tribes seeking new gambling agreements with the state.

The governor’s top lawyer, Jessica Hernandez, assured lawmakers that the administration is willing to negotiate with each tribe and consider their individual needs.

The proposed Navajo agreement needs approval from the Legislature and the U.S. Interior Department before it can take effect.

New Mexico lawmakers don’t have the power to rewrite the compact as they do bills that change state law. Instead, the House and Senate can only vote to approve or reject a gambling compact.

However, the committee can recommend that the governor’s office and tribe renegotiate compact provisions.

Navajo President Ben Shelly expressed concern that legislative requests for compact changes could prevent the Legislature from voting on the Navajo agreement during the 30-day session.

“The Navajo Nation cannot endure further delay,” he said.

If a vote doesn’t happen until next year, Shelly said, the existing Navajo compact might expire before a new agreement could receive approval of the state and the federal government.

Although the current proposal would allow the Navajos to open three additional casinos, tribal leaders have said there are no definite plans for future casinos.

New Mexico received about $71 million from tribal casinos last year. Tribes pay the state a share of slot-machine proceeds.


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

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