SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A legislative panel recommended Wednesday that the New Mexico Legislature approve a proposed gambling compact that would allow the Navajo Nation to open three additional casinos.
The Committee on Compacts voted 12-4 to forward the gambling agreement to the House and Senate for a vote.
The proposal needs approval of the Legislature and the U.S. Interior Department to take effect.
Navajo leaders said after the meeting that they're confident lawmakers will endorse the compact despite opposition from other tribes and pueblos who worry that more casinos will dilute their share of a saturated gambling market.
Three dozen Navajo casino workers attended the hearing, and Navajo President Ben Shelly said more workers would come to the Capitol as a show of support when the House and Senate debate the compact later this session.
"It's a wakeup call for the Navajo people to get involved in their government," Shelly told reporters.
The Navajos operate two Las Vegas-style casinos in New Mexico under a compact expiring next year and a third casino offers low-stakes gambling not subject to state regulation.
Acoma and Laguna pueblos have expressed concerns that the Navajos could open a casino on tribal lands near Albuquerque, competing with the smaller tribes for gamblers coming from the state's largest city.
The latest proposal would run through June 2037, and permit the Navajos to operate up to five casinos. Any new casinos must be phased in over 15 years. However, Navajo officials have said there are no definite plans for opening more casinos.
There's no limit on the number of casinos under the current compact with the Navajos and four other tribes — the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches as well as Acoma and Pojoaque pueblos.
Nine other New Mexico tribes have different compacts with the state, approved in 2007, and they each can operate two casinos.
New Mexico received about $71 million from tribal casinos last year. Tribal payments generally are based on slot-machine proceeds from wagering after a deduction for how much gamblers win.
The latest compact calls for the Navajos to make payments under the same terms as tribes covered by the 2007 agreements with the state. Those rates are higher than what the Navajos currently pay.
Other tribes have expressed concern that the Navajo compact will become the model for the state in negotiating new agreements in the future. Pojoaque Pueblo wants lower revenue sharing rates and other tribes object to a current prohibition on serving liquor to customers in gambling areas.
But Navajo officials and their supporters maintain there is nothing to stop other tribes from negotiating separate agreements with the Martinez administration.
"No compact is going to be perfect for everybody," said Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup.
Shelly urged other tribes to drop their opposition to the Navajo compact. He said disagreements among the tribes over gambling agreements "sends a wrong message to the federal government."
"I am asking all the tribes to stay united like we have done in the past," he said.
Voting against the compact approval recommendation were Sens. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales and Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants; and Reps. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, and Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque.
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