SANTA FE (AP) – With a deadline fast approaching, New Mexico lawmakers came together Thursday to approve a gambling compact that will allow a handful of American Indian tribes to continue operating casinos.
The House voted 61-5 in favor on one of the last remaining big-ticket items on the calendar as the session nears adjournment Saturday.
The compact is the result of three years of negotiations by Gov. Susana Martinez’s office, the Navajo Nation, the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache tribes, and the pueblos of Jemez and Acoma.
Among other things, the agreement allows casinos to stay open around the clock and to offer complimentary food and lodging. The compact also clears the way for the casinos to extend credit to high-rolling patrons.
It was previously approved by the state Senate, and it now requires final consideration by the U.S. Interior Department.
“I am so relieved. I know the Navajo people are,” Navajo President Ben Shelly said moments after the vote. He was among the tribal leaders present on the House floor.
Shelly said it would have been devastating for the tribe had the Legislature not approved the compact. The tribe has invested more than $200 million in its gambling facilities, he said.
The Jicarilla Apache Nation “is very pleased” with the House vote and eager to work with the Interior Department to seek approval of “this historic compact,” General Counsel Dion Killsback said.
The Legislature was under pressure to act this session because the current compact with the Navajo Nation and some of the other tribes expires in June. If the tribes want to legally operate casinos, the new compact had to be approved by the Legislature.
Jessica Hernandez, Martinez’s deputy chief of staff and lead negotiator, said the compact is more socially responsible and will provide stability for New Mexico’s gambling market for another two decades.
“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 issued Thursday.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, a Grants Democrat who chairs the compacts committee, has said the compact would increase revenues to the state during the next two decades beyond what existing compacts would offer.
Tribes that operate casinos in New Mexico reported more than $731 million in net winnings in 2014. Net winnings are the amount wagered on gambling machines, less the prizes won on those machines and regulatory fees.
State officials say the tribes paid New Mexico more than $66 million last year under revenue-sharing agreements that call for the state to ensure gambling exclusivity for them in exchange for a percentage of net winnings. Revenue sharing under the compact is expected to top an estimated $77 million in 2019.
Lawmakers say the compact will bring in $10 million more in the next fiscal year alone.
Several members of the House spoke in favor of the compact, calling it an economic driver for the state and for the prosperity of tribal lands.
Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, said the compact is reasonable and a “true compromise between the state and the tribes.”
Nine other New Mexico tribes operate under different compacts with the state. Those agreements were approved in 2007 and won’t expire until 2037.
Under the compact approved Thursday, 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.
Under the formula outlined in the compact, revenue sharing would range from 8.5 percent to 10.75 percent depending on the amount of net winnings and the number of years the compact has been in place.
The compact also calls for tribes to submit monthly and quarterly reports to state regulators, and tribes would have to provide more information to players about resources to treat problem gambling.