SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico lawmakers have dealt a setback to the Navajo Nation by rejecting a gambling compact that would have allowed the state’s largest American Indian tribe to open three additional casinos.
The Senate voted 31-10 against the agreement Wednesday, which the House had approved the day before.
The compact required approval of the Legislature and the U.S. Interior Department to take effect.
Navajo President Ben Shelly expressed bitter disappointment and said the Navajos would consider their options, including possible legal action against the state.
“I always thought that the state of New Mexico has always been friendly to Native Americans,” Shelly said after the vote. “I can’t believe that they have only been friendly to a few - the pueblos - and not to the Navajo Nation.”
Shelly said he was unhappy with pueblos that objected to the proposed compact because they worried their casinos might suffer if there were more places to gamble in New Mexico.
“I thought we were unified in everything we do,” he said of other tribes. “I don’t know what happened to them. I guess greed and business is what happened.”
He said, “I think this is going to be a big thing. They made a big mistake, the pueblos, by what they did.”
Compact opponents objected that the deal would have allowed the Navajos to open three more casinos over 15 years.
There are more than 20 casinos operated by 14 tribes and pueblos in New Mexico, and five horse-racing tracks have casinos with slot machines.
Acoma and Laguna pueblos had testified before lawmakers that the gambling market was saturated in New Mexico and their casinos would suffer if the Navajos were allowed to expand. Of particular concern was the possibility that the Navajos might build a casino on their land near Albuquerque.
Democratic Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants, whose district includes Acoma and Laguna pueblos, said the Navajos should be limited to their existing casinos. He said there was ample time for the state to negotiate another compact with the Navajos because the tribe’s existing agreements run through June 2015.
He also complained that the Navajos had quickly turned down a request by a legislative committee to revise the compact to deal with concerns about the number of new casinos.
“I think the Nation was disrespecting our process up here,” he said.
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.
The tribe is seeking a new compact to provide the option for economic development in the future. Tribal officials have said they likely will upgrade existing casinos before building any new ones.
Sen. George Munoz, a Gallup Democrat, said the proposed compact would provide stability for the tribe and its contracts with casino vendors. Waiting until next year to deal with a new compact increases the risk that the current tribal-state gambling agreement will expire before it can be replaced. Without any compact, he said, the Navajos might have to close their existing casinos.
Democratic Sen. John Pinto of Gallup, a Navajo who has the most seniority in the Senate, said the proposed compact was vital for tribal economic development.
“The Navajo Nation gambling enterprise has created over 950 jobs, of which 90 percent of those jobs are held by Navajo people,” Pinto said. “I see my people able to provide for themselves and their families.”
The proposed compact would have extended to 2037.
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.
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