Inside the Capitol

Friday, November 19, 2004

Big Gaming Pushing the Envelope

SANTA FE As the lure of big gambling increases, more players want to get in the game and those already in push the envelope trying to extract even more profits.
More than a decade ago, this column warned that once gambling got a foot in the door, there would be no stopping its continued growth. We had racetracks back then, but they weren’t making much money, especially after Indian gaming got its start in the late 1980s.
Govs. Garrey Carruthers and Bruce King dug in their heels and said there would be no more gaming. It hurt King badly in his 1994 re-election effort, as the tribes and pueblos that already were inching into the business went after him.
Gary Johnson won that gubernatorial race and one of his first acts was to sign Indian gaming compacts with all who wanted into the business.
Then came the racetracks, bleeding financially and arguing that casinos were their only salvation. They got ‘em, and now they’re profitable enough that Hobbs is getting a new track and Raton and Santa Fe want to reopen.
Over the years, the handful of Indian casinos has increased to 13 tribes, which includes 10 pueblos, two Apache reservations and a Navajo pilot project. And that is by no means the end of it.
Nambe, with no major highway access, bought frontage property from Pojoaque Pueblo and will build UFO-themed Stargate Casino. Since that was merely an exchange of Indian trust land, no special permission was required for Nambe.
Then came Jemez Pueblo, partnering with a Santa Fe developer on a proposal to build a casino near Anthony, on our southern border, nearly 300 miles off the reservation. That does take special approval from the U.S. Interior Department and chances of success appear slim.
But that didn’t prevent a copycat proposal from tiny Picuris Pueblo, high in the mountains off the “back road” from Santa Fe to Taos. Picuris is teaming with an Albuquerque promoter, and possibly the huge Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, to propose a casino near Chaparral, east of Anthony.
There even is talk about something happening at Santa Teresa, New Mexico’s border crossing, just west of El Paso and in the back yard of Sunland Park racetrack and casino, which is opposing any further casinos within 50 miles.
That surprise was preceded only days earlier by an announcement from the Fort Sill, Oklahoma Apache tribal chairman Jeff Houser that his tribe wants to reclaim part of its ancestral homeland in southern New Mexico.
The Fort Sill Apaches are descendants of the Chiricahua Tribe that roamed the southwest in the 1800s. The Chiricahuas were forced out of their homeland by the U.S. government, deported to Florida and detained as prisoners of war for years. They never were granted a reservation, though some later purchased land in Oklahoma.
Their leader, Jeff Houser, is a nephew of famous Indian sculptor Allan Houser, whose work appears on the grounds of our state capitol. Houser wants to take the route of seeking an act of Congress, which doesn’t require anyone else’s approval. He is hopeful Congress will agree to grant land as compensation for the government’s past acts.
While all this activity takes place on our southern border, a group of investors wants to build a new horse track and casino near the old La Mesa Park track south of Raton on I-25. Pojoaque Pueblo is moving along with its plan to reopen Santa Fe Downs south of town. And a group in Tucumcari is still expressing interest in a track.
In the northwest corner of the state, SunRay Park and Casino in Farmington asked state gambling regulators for permission to cash Social Security retirement checks. SunRay argued that the ban on cashing government assistance checks shouldn’t apply to retirement checks, which are earned. The Gaming Control Board didn’t buy it.
But that won’t end efforts to push the envelope.


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