By large majorities, the New Mexico House and Senate recently approved a new gaming compact with the Navajo Nation, Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache tribes, and the pueblos of Jemez and Acoma. The current compact will expire at the end of June. The compact still needs the approval of the U.S. Interior Department. The deal had been negotiated between the office of Governor Susana Martinez, but required the approval of the legislature.
“I am so relieved. I know the Navajo people are,” Navajo President Ben Shelly said. The bill was crucial to the Navajos, who have invested more than $200 million in New Mexico casinos, and would have been required to close without a compact.
Jessica Hernandez, Martinez’s deputy chief of staff and lead negotiator, said the compact will provide stability for New Mexico’s gambling market for another two decades, as well as introducing provisions for problem gamblers.
“It is a balanced approach that will provide economic development opportunities for tribes, protect the revenue the state receives in exchange for the valuable benefits it provides the tribes through the compacts, and ensure safe and responsible tribal gaming in New Mexico,” she said in a statement.
The bill allows the casinos to stay open 24 hours and to offer complimentary food and lodging. It also allows the casinos to offer credit to certain gamblers.
The state benefits as well. In the last year, tribes paid New Mexico $66 million under a revenue sharing agreement. It’s estimated that the new compact will boost those payments to $77 million by 2019.
Nine other New Mexico tribes operate under different compacts with the state. Those compacts were approved in 2007 and won’t expire until 2037.
Under the compact approved last week, those tribes would have the option to sign on to the new agreement, which in some cases would offer more favorable terms when it comes to sharing revenue with the state.
However, many believe the new compact treats the Fort Sill Apache tribe, a federally recognized sovereign tribe, unfairly. In fact, the tribe recently once again filed a lawsuit against Martinez and her administration in New Mexico Supreme Court to force compliance with the State Compact Negotiation Act and sign two Class III gaming compacts the tribe submitted in 2013. Currently the tribe operates a small travel center on its reservation at Akela Flats.
Fort Sill Apache Chairman Jeff Haozous said, “It has become urgent that these compacts are signed now that the administration has become openly opposed to our return, authoring a new compact that explicitly prevents our tribe from participating. It is unfortunate that the administration’s continued discrimination against our tribe has once again forced us to turn to the court for relief. We may be the smallest tribe in the state, but our rights are equal to every other tribe and pueblo. Until this administration recognizes and respects this fact, we will not rest.”
The tribe is the successor to the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache Tribes, who, in 1886, were forcibly removed by the U.S. Army from their homelands in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona and taken to Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma, where they were released. After a federal court affirmed their claim for more than 14.8 million acres in their homeland, they organized as the Fort Sill Apache tribe. In 1995 and 2000, the tribe was invited to return to New Mexico, where it bought its Akela Flats property between Deming and Las Cruces. The land was taken into federal trust in 2002 and designated a reservation in November 2011.
State Senator John Arthur Smith of Deming said the proposed gaming compact should be rejected and discriminatory language against the Fort Sill Apaches should be removed.
“The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled the Fort Sill Apaches are a New Mexico tribe,” said Smith. “There is no disputing it. They are like every other sovereign nation in the state. And they should be treated like it. It would like to participate like all the other tribes in tribal gaming to provide needed funds for tribal government infrastructure and programs for its people. The governor continues to insist on road blocks for the Fort Sill Apaches. For the people around Deming with some of the highest unemployment in the state, it means a road block to hundreds of future jobs and hope for the future.”
Smith said the gaming market is not saturated on the 1-10 corridor in Southwestern New Mexico. “There are no gaming establishments there at all. Akela Flats can attract potential interstate customers and jobs,” he stated.