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January 23, 2008
Narragansetts say grim times argue for a casino
CHARLESTOWN -- The Narragansett Indian Tribe used Governor Carcieri’s grim state of the state address to launch its latest casino plans, saying a gaming venture on its land would give Rhode Island a badly-needed financial boost.
The tribe plans to ask state leaders this week to support its efforts to persuade Congress to repeal a law that requires the Narragansetts to seek statewide voter approval for high-stakes gaming on its 1,800 acres, Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas said. Once the law is rescinded, the tribe could immediately forge ahead with a destination casino, and its backers would promptly reward the state with a cash payment.
“We’re looking to help the state immediately,” Thomas said.
He would not specify how much the initial payment would be, but promised that the establishment would hire only Rhode Islanders for the estimated 3,500 jobs and buy local goods and supplies from Rhode Island businesses.
“We’ll put it in writing,” he said. “The reality is we need a lot of jobs in this state.”
The tribe will send letters seeking support to Governor Carcieri, House Speaker William J. Murphy and Senate President Joseph Montalbano by the end of the week.
-- Journal staff writer Katie Mulvaney
But most state officials reached today and the Congressional delegation appear reluctant to embrace the tribe’s plans.
Carcieri described Rhode Island as teetering at the edge of financial disaster in his address Tuesday night. The state is facing its most ominous deficit since the credit crisis in the early 1990s -- $151 million in the current year and up to $450 million in the budget year that begins July 1.
This comes as the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe pursues a casino in Massachusetts with backing from Sol Kerzner and Len Wolman, principals of BLB Investors, the gambling conglomerate that owns Twin River.
The Narragansetts’ announcement is the latest step in its nearly two-decade gaming quest. Last year, it pushed plans to open a slot parlor on par with Twin River on its land after voters rejected a proposal to change the state Constitution to allow it to build a casino in West Warwick with Harrah’s Entertainment.
The tribe lobbied its Congressional delegation -- unsuccessfully -- to overturn the Chafee amendment, a law introduced by the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee in 1996 that bars the tribe from federal Indian gaming privileges on its 1,800 acres. Chafee said the measure closed a loophole, but critics charge that it strips the tribe of its rights.
Thomas said the tribe’s new proposal would save the state from be forced to seek a Constitutional amendment to expand gambling at Twin River, as has been floated in recent months over local opposition. Sixty-five percent of Lincoln voters opposed allowing 24-hour gambling at Twin River, and 60 percent voted against allowing the facility to become a full-fledged casino in a special election last fall.
The Narragansetts would construct a casino that would be competitive with Foxwoods Resort Casino, Mohegan Sun and any built in Massachusetts, Thomas said. It would be set on about 120 acres off Route 2 that the tribe cleared for a high-stakes bingo hall before the Chafee amendment passed.
“We believe they should take a good look at this,” he said. “Hopefully, the leaders of Rhode Island will work with us.”
The tribe will not have the governor’s support.
“It’s not clear in what ways a casino would help the state budget,” said Jeff Neal, Carcieri’s spokesman. A private casino would only draw business away from Twin River and Newport Grand, both which pay the state roughly 60 percent of their slot revenue.
Once a supporter of the tribe’s efforts to overturn the Chafee amendment, U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy has retreated from that stance in recent years, saying the Narragansetts would need the support of the full delegation.
That seems unlikely since Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed and Rep. James R. Langevin yesterday repeated their opposition to changing the Chafee amendment yesterday.
Langevin opposes any expansion of gambling in Rhode Island, said his spokeswoman Joy Fox.
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