The Patrick administration yesterday rejected a request by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to negotiate an agreement for a $1 billion resort casino in Middleborough, saying talks would be premature until the federal government places the tribe's land in trust.
"Until we know the extent to which the Bureau of Indian Affairs approves the Tribe's land-in-trust application, and the Tribe's jurisdiction over the land located in Middleborough is established, any agreements we might reach would be purely hypothetical," wrote Governor Deval Patrick's chief legal counsel, Ben Clements, to tribal chairman Shawn W. Hendricks Sr.
Clements urged Hendricks to continue ongoing "informal conversations and meetings" with administration officials.
Earlier this week, the tribe delivered a letter to the governor requesting that negotiations begin "at the earliest mutually convenient date."
The tribe won federal recognition last year, the first step toward building a resort casino with 4,000 slot machines, a 1,500-room hotel, and a golf course in the Southeastern Massachusetts town.
But before it can build a casino, it must win federal approval to declare land it owns to be sovereign and place it in trust.
Tribal leaders believe they will receive approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs next year, but the process can take much longer.
In its letter to Patrick, the tribe said that having a compact with the state could help the Wampanoag win federal approval of their land-in-trust application.
Patrick, whose proposal to license three casinos in Massachusetts died in the House of Representatives last March, repeatedly argued the state should license casinos because - with or without state approval - the tribe is likely to build one.
Without a state compact with the tribe, the state would lose any control over the casino and the share of revenues it would receive in a partnership.
In its letter to Patrick, the Wampanoag tribe said that if the state doesn't approve a compact, it will pursue its federal rights under the Indian Gaming Act to develop a Class 2 casino, which is limited to less-lucrative slot machines and limited forms of other gambling. Upgrading to Class 3, which allows slots with bigger jackpots and table games like Black Jack, would require state approval.
"No matter what ultimately happens with the negotiations, please know that it is the tribe's intent to operate America's most successful casino resort in Middleborough," wrote Hendricks on Sept. 3. "We hope that we do so in a manner which benefits all of us to the fullest extent possible."
Scott Ferson, a spokesman for the tribe, said the governor's response was not a surprise since he had indicated previously that he wanted to delay discussions until the tribe's application had made its way through the federal bureaucracy.
He said the tribe "looks forward" to ongoing discussions with Daniel O'Connell, secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development who has been the administration's point man on gaming.
"The tribal chairman had a very good conversation with Secretary O'Connell yesterday," Ferson said. "The tribe has been in discussions with the state over infrastructure issues and looks forward to having further discussions in the near term on police and fire, and social service issues."
He said the tribe would rather team up with the state to build a Class 3 facility than build a Class 2 casino on its own.
But hammering out an agreement "takes time," said Ferson, "usually six months or longer. The Bureau of Indian Affairs encourages tribes to work these out in anticipation of the land being taken into trust. That's the way it was done in Connecticut."
Any deal between the tribe and the governor would probably also need the approval of the Legislature.
Patrick, in legislation he filed last year for three casinos, argued they would create tens of thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in state revenue.
He is expected to file a new casino bill when the Legislature reconvenes in January.