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Narragansetts remain on the sidelines as RI + Massachusetts gear up for more gambling

July 13, 2012

Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas can only watch in frustration as 1) Massachusetts moves ahead with plans for expanded gambling in nearby Taunton; and Rhode Island’s slot parlors spend heavily in hopes of adding table games at Twin River and Newport Grand.

Thomas tells me he plans to send a personal invitation for a conversation on the topic to Governor Lincoln Chafee, House Speaker Gordon Fox, and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. He says he plans to send it in a week to a week and a half.

“I’d like to ask them why the state is so hellbent on fighting my tribe,” Thomas told me prior to a taping this morning of WPRI/WNAC-TV’s Newsmakers. “I think it’s a discriminatory practice, and I think to single out a tribe by statute, it’s insane. I want to know how this can happen, and I also want to know from [Attorney General Peter] Kilmartin how it can happen.”

Most federally recognized tribes have been able to establish casinos with relative ease. But a rider inserted into legislation by the late senator John Chafee, the father of Governor Lincoln Chafee, means the Narragansetts need a statewide vote to move ahead. Following the Chafee rider, the General Assembly took control of deciding if and when a casino question goes on the ballot.

Thomas says his tribe gets a tiny percentage of video slot revenue, to the tune of about $800,000 a year, as part of an offer extended by former governor Don Carcieri. (As it happens, tomorrow — Saturday — marks the ninth anniversary of a state police raid ordered by Carcieri on a tribal smoke shop.)

Yet that amount is peanuts compared with what tribes across the US are getting from casinos.

Asked if he has a plan that would help to preserve Rhode Island’s gambling stream while helping the Narragansetts, Thomas says he favors a compact like the one reached between Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

Yet with the Bay State possibly poised to add a total of three casinos and a slot parlor, Rhode Island has staked its marbles on Twin River and Newport Grand. The state has gone so far as to indemnify the former against potential losses if another gambling venue enters the market.

Thomas says he has a cordial relationship with Governor Chafee, stemming from his time as a senator, but has not talked in detail about the tribe’s current concerns.

Meanwhile, the “Carcieri fix” — legislation that would give the tribe more power to do what it wants with its land in Charlestown — is going nowhere fast in the Senate.

Thomas says he hopes to have a conversation with state leaders:

“I think that the state should sit down with the Narragansett Indian Tribe and find out what we can do, and if we can go gaming, whatever . . . . 

I’d like to see how many millions of dollars the state has spent in taxpayers’ dollars fighting our tribe, and there’s nothing wrong with sitting down and talking. I think if  we spoke about the gamut — gaming or what have you, and working with the state — they may be surprised at what we could do  and try to help employ some people.”

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