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Massachusetts needs casinos

WHEN THE federal Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the recent bid by the Nipmuc Nation tribe in Central Massachusetts for federal recognition, you could hear the ovation in Connecticut. The lead cheerleader was Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a persistent critic of two Nipmuc tribes seeking recognition because of what Blumenthal saw as the tribe's attempt to gain recognition only to begin the process of building competing casino entertainment venues in Massachusetts.

Putting aside the 25-year quest by the Nipmucs for recognition -- long before there was "Indian gaming" -- the Blumenthal campaign to discredit the Nipmucs was inaccurate and offensive to tribal members who had followed the rules set out by the Bureau of Indian Affairs only to see the bureau change those rules in its final determination.

The Nipmuc Nation won recognition from the outgoing Clinton administration in 2001, then saw that approval held up by the incoming Bush administration. After a grueling four-year process, the tribe was summarily denied. This is a tribe that has state recognition and a long and well documented history and ongoing community and political involvement, even though Bay Colony settlers stripped them of their land and much of their heritage.

The denial should be of more than a passing interest to Massachusetts. We have long debated the morality of legalized gambling even as we depend on our state lottery for more than $700 million in direct local aid to the state's 351 cities and towns. What we must do now is examine the issue from an economic standpoint.

The growth of Indian gaming nationally is singularly impressive. Gross revenues in 1995 were more than $5 billion and have grown steadily to $16.7 billion in 2003, providing 500,000 good jobs across the country. In 2002, the two tribal casinos in Connecticut provided more than 20,000 direct and indirect jobs and contributed $368 million to the state treasury.

Travel to the Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun casinos and survey their parking lots and you will figure out what the Connecticut Attorney General Blumenthal already knows, which is that Massachusetts residents are contributing $800 million in annual revenues to these casinos. The question that Governor Romney and the Legislature need to settle is, how long we are going to continue to ignore what could be our single largest new job source while exporting what will soon be $1 billion across our borders?

Whatever the arguments are against legalized gaming, the reality is that 30 states have Indian gaming, we already have gaming in the form of the state lottery, and there is clearly a demand among Massachusetts residents for casino entertainment.

In supporting the bids by the Nipmucs and the Wampanoags to establish a casino in Massachusetts, lawmakers can better negotiate revenue-sharing with the tribes. If either tribe secures the right to build a gaming venue on tribal land, we lose the leverage of higher possible revenues.

Despite the improving budget picture in Massachusetts state government, our critical budget needs in education, Medicaid, and local aid to cities and towns are rising faster than our ability to fund those needs. What principle are we standing on while we continue to lose revenue, jobs, and tourism dollars to other states and ignore an important means to fund critical programs?

We should sit down with these tribes and other interested parties to work out a long-range plan that would bring limited casino gaming to Massachusetts and reap the benefits of the revenues and jobs we are now just exporting to other states.

Representative George N. Peterson Jr. (R-Grafton) is assistant minority leader in the Massachusetts Legislature. Mark J. Carron is a Democratic Representative from Southbridge. 

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