New Mexico Senate votes down Navajo Nation gaming compact

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Sen. John Pinto convene in the halls of the Roundhouse in Santa Fe while waiting for the  vote on the Navajo Nation's gaming compact. Photo/Rick Abasta

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Sen. John Pinto convene in the halls of the Roundhouse in Santa Fe while waiting for the vote on the Navajo Nation's gaming compact. Photo/Rick Abasta

SANTA FE, N.M. - The New Mexico Senate voted down a Navajo Nation gaming compact Feb. 19, which would have allowed the Nation to build three more casinos. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said without a compact, the Nation may have to close its existing casinos.

After intense lobbying from the pueblos against the compact, senators voted 31-10 against the agreement. The compact covered almost 25 years and would have allowed the Nation five casinos. The current compact that covers the Nation and other New Mexico tribes expires in 2015.

Shelly said the stakes could not have been any higher as the compact affects more than 950 current gaming positions and a vital revenue stream for the Nation. He expressed disappointment after the vote and said an extensive lobbying effort by the pueblos was evident in the final tally.

"The Navajo people will be negatively impacted by this vote, especially if we are forced to close our casino doors," Shelly said. "It's upsetting that each of the pueblos claimed to support tribal sovereignty, yet they voted against our compact."

He thanked the Navajo leaders in the legislature and the Navajo gaming task force that worked tirelessly on the compact.

Before the vote, Sen. John Pinto (D-N.M.) pleaded with the Senate for approval and said the Navajo casinos employ Spanish, African-American, Anglo and Navajo workers.

"We're going to hurt them if we close this casino," Pinto said.

On Feb. 18, the gaming compact passed the New Mexico House of Representatives by a vote of 36-30. Shelly was optimistic about passage in the Senate.

"I want to thank the legislators who supported the terms of our Navajo Gaming Compact," Shelly said. "Now we have to go back to the drawing board and see what we have to do next."

Shelly said the Navajo people invested more than $250 million in the casinos and closing the doors to any of the facilities would have a damaging effect on the Nation's budget.

Shelly traveled to Santa Fe four times recently to garner support for the compact. He met with legislators and shared information on Navajo gaming. One of the concerns he expressed was the upcoming election, especially if New Mexico legislators are voted out of office.

He said the result could be inadequate time to educate new members on the importance of the gaming compact to the Navajo Nation and to get legislation passed.

Shelly said the joint compact with the Navajo Nation and the pueblos was in trouble early on because of staunch opposition to Navajo's proposed number of casinos.

"Navajo is unique because of our population and our land base, which is why we needed to negotiate our compact separately," he said. "This compact was not a template for the pueblo gaming compacts with the state."

Shelly said the Nation will regroup and find a solution.

"That is the strength of the Navajo Nation," Shelly said. "We've worked with the pueblos and supported them in the past. We need to find common ground and not work against each other."

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