Details of this bill
House Bill 312 was originally introduced by Representative Bill Keating from Massachusetts in January 2019. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has publicly supported it.
This bill calls for two tracts of land in Mashpee and Taunton, Massachusetts to become Mashpee Wampanoag tribal land. This land, totaling 321 acres, would be designated as sovereign territory.
If this bill passes, the tribe plans to build a 900-room hotel and casino on the land in Taunton. Residents of the area have been strongly against this idea for some time.
On February 4, 2016, 24 Taunton residents filed a lawsuit against this move with the US District Court in Boston. The federal authorities at that time had given approval for the tribe to proceed with the casino development.
According to the residents, the tribe is attempting to “remove forever the land, currently held in fee simple by the Mashpees, from the tax and regulatory jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the County of Bristol, and the City of Taunton, and in the process create a tax-immune, regulation-free Indian reservation on which the Tribe is authorized to build and operate a Las Vegas-style casino resort called ‘First Light.’ ”
Ongoing legal battle
The Boston US District Court sided with the residents in July 2016. This meant that development had to stop.
As a result, the tribe has struggled financially. They had a deal with Genting Malaysia to help operate this facility. Having lent money to the tribe, Genting has now written off these debts.
The tribe made a statement about the struggles they are experiencing since the casino development has been in doubt. The statement says: “Unless Congress enacts legislation now to prevent the Department of the Interior from disestablishing our reservation, in 2019 we will have to close programs, shutter our school, lay off our governmental employees, and witness the dissolution of all that we have achieved since our federal recognition was restored in 2007. It is almost impossible to describe the despair that the federal government’s continued inaction has brought to our people.”
Those who are against this bill believe that the tribe does not adequately qualify to have this land put into a trust to receive federal recognition.
As per a Supreme Court decision in 2009, this can only happen if the tribe was recognized by the federal government at the time of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934.
The Mashpee tribe got federal recognition only in 2007. However, they argue that, while they technically did not have federal recognition in 1934, they were still acting as if they were under federal jurisdiction.
Since 2007, the tribe has been looking at ways to can create a casino. Resort casinos became legal in November 2011 in the state, with three licenses made available.
One of these licenses went to the MGM Springfield Casino, which is now in operation. The other license went to Wynn Resorts, whose casino set to open in the near future.
It seems as if the authorities are waiting to see the outcome of this saga before awarding the third and final resort casino license.
This third license is for Southeastern Massachusetts and the fee will be $85m (£65.3m). The state and tribe agreed on a compact allowing the casino, which broke ground in April 2016.
It was to cost about $1bn (£770,000m) to develop and it was planned to have over 3,000 gaming machines and 150 table games, along with three hotels and numerous entertainment facilities.
However, three months later, they had to stop the development. The land in Taunton is the only suitable area for this casino because of access requirements.
U-turn in Taunton
Taunton initially welcomed this project because it would create jobs and stimulate the local economy. In a referendum in June 2012, 63% of voters supported the casino.
In September 2015, the Department of the Interior put the land into trust for the tribe. The tribe purchased another site in Taunton as part of this project. The residents filed their suit in February 2016. In July 2018, the Department of the Interior reversed its decision to put the land into trust.
This led to the tribe filing a lawsuit, claiming that the decision reversal was arbitrary and capricious because it did not consider the evidence from the tribe. In November 2018, the department won a delay in the lawsuit.
House Bill 312 calls for bypassing of the Department of the Interior to legalize this tribal casino resort. Casino operators in nearby regions have concerns about the impact on their businesses if this project goes ahead. In particular, two casinos in nearby Rhode Island have concerns.
President Trump’s reaction
President Trump is calling for the rejection of this bill. He tweeted: “Republicans shouldn’t vote for [HR] 312, a special interest casino bill backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren. It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!”
This reaction from the President has led to the House Democrats delaying the vote. It is the first time that President Trump has made a public comment on the issue.
Some say that Trump is being influenced by lobbyist and presidential advisor Matt Schlapp, who works with Twin River Worldwide Holdings, the company that owns the two casinos in Rhode Island. Some believe that Schlapp has successfully convinced Trump to try and help shelve this bill.