SANTA FE, N.M. - A Navajo Nation gambling compact that would allow the Nation to build three more casinos made its way through a New Mexico legislature committee on Feb. 5, winning approval with a 12-4 vote, despite some objections from New Mexico tribes.
Now the compact needs approval from the New Mexico House and Senate before it goes to the U.S. Department of Interior for final approval.
"Considering that this legislative session ends in approximately 20 days, it does not give us much time," said Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly.
The compact covers almost 25 years and would allow the Nation five casinos, but any expansion would start after five years of the compact being approved.
Derrick Watchman, CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, said that it was important for the Navajo Nation for the legislation to pass. The current compact that covers the Nation and other New Mexico tribes expires in 2015 and the next 15 months could bring changes, politically and otherwise, that could impact the work already done on the compact during the last six years.
"It brings us certainty," Watchman said. "There's a lot that hinges on the compact and a year and a half is a long time. New Mexico and the Navajo government will be going through elections and I'm afraid that if it doesn't pass, we will have to start all over."
Watchman explained that this compact is between the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico and does not include the other tribes in New Mexico.
"We are neighbors and we need to foster the government-to-government relationship between the state of New Mexico and the Nation," Shelly said. "As two sovereign and independent governments, we must be respectful to the positions, concerns and struggles that the Nation and New Mexico face.
"The Navajo Nation has given its best good faith efforts to negotiate and present a compact to the state that is in the best interest for our Navajo people, New Mexicans and economic development," he added.
Amendments to the 2014 compact remove methods of 'free play' where casinos offer coupons, which allow customers to gamble for free. The compact also removed any references to Class II gaming - games like bingo.
"We think we got all the issues resolved," Watchman said, adding that the issue of how many casinos the Navajo Nation is allowed still lingers.
"Our position is that, in our 2001 compact we had unlimited numbers of casinos we could operate," he said. "We're going from unlimited to five."
In a prior committee hearing, leaders from the Laguna and Acoma pueblos and the Jicarilla Apache Nation said that more casinos in their areas would offer too much competition in a small market and could cause them to cut some tribal services and cut workers in their own casinos.
Shelly spoke about the geographic restrictions raised by other tribal leaders.
"At the last committee hearing, several tribal leaders raised concerns on the future locations for the Navajo Nation's gaming facilities along the I-40 corridor and Albuquerque area," Shelly said. "While I respect the recommendations from the other tribes, the Navajo Nation will not agree to any geographic restriction."
He said the provision infringed upon Navajo sovereignty and cited three reasons why the Nation would not agree to the geographic restriction provision.
It is the Navajo Nation's inherent right to develop and pursue any economic venture on its tribal trust lands, he said.
Shelly said with more than 50 percent unemployment on the Nation, any restriction on tribal economic development is not only unfair, but also immoral.
He noted that the geographic restrictions are in violation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and that the Department of the Interior would not approve such a provision.
Watchman said he understands the concerns of some tribes but he said that the casino industry is competitive and that the Navajo Nation will take a hard look at all of its locations to see if they can raise capital and see if it makes sense from a feasibility and marketing standpoint.
"We have a responsibility to serve all of our Navajos all across the Nation," he said. "We're one of the 21 tribes across New Mexico that are just trying to create jobs and create economic development."
And Watchman emphasized that not all the jobs created by the Nation's casinos go only to Navajos.
"We also employ Pueblos, we employ other tribes...," he said. "I think it's beneficial."
The legislation still needs to go to the New Mexico legislature and to the Department of the Interior, but Watchman said that the Nation is confident that it will get the compact passed through the New Mexico legislature.
"President Shelly, Council Delegate Lorenzo Bates and myself, our position is that this is a compact with the state, it's not a template, we've been assured that the other pueblos have their right to negotiate with the state," Watchman said. "We worked hard for six years, this is a Navajo compact and time is of the essence."