Tribes rely on lobbyists to protect their interests
Given the stakes, it's hardly surprising that casino operators, Indian tribes and others connected to the gaming industry spent more than $3 million last year protecting their interests in Massachusetts.
What does raise eyebrows, some say, is that the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns Foxwoods Resort Casino, including MGM Grand at Foxwoods, is not among the nearly 30 gaming entities that lobbied the Massachusetts legislature in 2010, according to the secretary of the commonwealth's website. A bill authorizing three resort casinos as well as slot machines at two existing racetracks emerged from the session, but Gov. Deval Patrick refused to sign it, setting the stage for renewed debate this year.
Considering the impact expanded gambling in Massachusetts could have on Connecticut's casinos, the Mashantuckets might have been expected to oppose the legislation.
Mohegan Sun, on the other hand, which also risks losing business to Bay State competitors, intends to seek a gaming license in Massachusetts if and when casinos are authorized there. The Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which operates the Uncasville casino, has optioned property for a casino development in the western Massachusetts town of Palmer and has maintained a high profile there for nearly two years.
The authority's filings with the secretary of the commonwealth show it spent nearly $95,000 lobbying the Massachusetts legislature in 2010. The sum includes nearly $93,000 paid to O'Neill and Associates, a firm founded by former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III.
"Our position in Massachusetts and our communications have been that if and when the commonwealth decides to pass legislation legalizing gaming, we believe we have the best site and are in the best position to provide that form of entertainment," Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegan Tribe's chief of staff, said Friday. "We do believe that destinations are far better than no bid awards to tracks."
The Mohegans, whose lobbying investment in Massachusetts last year was up from $74,000 in 2009, was not among 2010's top spenders. Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, operator of the Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston, paid lobbyists $850,600. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, which also hopes to develop a resort casino in Massachusetts, spent nearly $156,000.
The local gaming tribes lobby the federal government and legislatures in Connecticut and other jurisdictions as the need arises. Public records indicate the Mohegans, who also have active gaming interests in Pennsylvania and Washington state, have outspent the Mashantuckets in Connecticut in the last couple of years, while the Mashantuckets, who once maintained a well-staffed office in Washington, D.C., have spent more on the federal level.
"The tribe's unique government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government is critical to the well-being of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation," Bill Satti, a spokesman for the Mashantuckets, said. "The tribe has significant issues pertaining to education, public safety, infrastructure, health care, housing and language preservation that require constant monitoring and interaction with the federal and state government. In order to meet the needs of the tribe, at times we have used firms to help us to protect and enhance the sovereign rights of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation."
According to data posted on OpenSecrets.org, a website maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group, the Mashantuckets paid $170,000 through the first three quarters of 2010 to lobby the U.S. House and Senate, the Department of the Interior and the National Indian Gaming Commission. The tribe spent $160,000 lobbying the federal government in 2009 and $310,000 in 2008.
The Mohegans spent $30,000 lobbying the federal government during the first three quarters of 2010, $40,000 in 2009 and $80,000 in 2008. By way of contrast, California's Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians spent $870,000 in the first three quarters of 2010 and the Seminole Tribe of Florida $560,000.
The Mohegan model
Bunnell said the Mohegans spend considerably less on federal lobbyists than do other gaming tribes because of contacts he established during his eight years as a member of former Sen. Chris Dodd's staff and because the tribe's leaders prefer to carry the tribe's banner themselves whenever possible.
"The Mohegan model is very much that Mohegan represents Mohegan," Bunnell said. "It's more effective to have tribal members talk to someone. It's better than having someone with 10, 15 clients do it."
The Mohegans follow some issues that may have little to do with the tribe itself, he said, such as fallout from a U.S. Supreme Court decision barring the federal government from taking land into trust for tribes recognized after 1934. The tribe has also weighed in on Indian health-care and welfare issues, water-rights issues and Internet gambling legislation. Lynn Malerba, the Mohegan chief and former chairwoman, testified before a House committee last year on a bill that would have authorized tribal governments and tribal gaming facilities to operate Internet gaming sites.
In Connecticut, where several issues affecting the tribes can unfold at once, the Mohegans rely on the Hartford firm of Rome Smith & Lutz to advance their interests, spending about $150,000 to do so in each of the past two years, according to the Connecticut Office of State Ethics. The Mashantuckets, represented in Hartford by Robinson & Cole, spent $69,000 on state lobbying last year and $86,500 in 2009, data available on the office's website shows.
State legislative issues the tribes have faced in recent years include an outright ban on smoking at the casinos, the proposed introduction of the electronic game keno at bars, restaurants and other locations and a plan to extend the hours during which liquor can be sold. None of the measures was approved. The tribes also have a keen interest in the state's marketing of the tourism industry and gaming taxation.
Many other industries and firms that lobby the state legislature spend far more than the tribes do. The state ethics office reported that $38.6 million was spent on lobbyists in 2009. Topping the list were the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, which spent $1.5 million, and Northeast Utilities, which spent $955,000.
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