New Mexico Navajo Nation gambling compact Governor Susana Martinez

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has renegotiated a gambling compact with the Navajo Nation that should give them expanded casino options (Image: (Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post)

The Navajo Nation was already in the gambling game, but now they’re set to become a powerhouse. The New Mexico House of Representatives has approved a compact between the Navajos and the state, putting the tribe one step closer to greatly expanding their casino presence in the Land of Enchantment.

First of Three Hurdles

The House approved the proposed agreement by a 36-30 vote this week, clearing one of three hurdles that would lead to the compact being ratified. It must also be approved by the New Mexico Senate, as well as by the U.S. Interior Department before it can take effect.

Getting the Senate approval may be the trickiest part. Lawmakers are adjourning the current legislative session late this week, leaving little time for the Senate to debate and approve the compact.

But the Navajos were pleased with the development, and said that they think final approval would be a good thing for the state of New Mexico, as well as for their tribe.

“It’s a good thing for the people,” said Navajo President Ben Shelly.

The agreement – negotiated between the tribe and Governor Susana Martinez – would extend a compact that was set to expire in 2015 out through to 2037. Currently, the Navajos operate two major casinos in Gallup and Farmington, as well as a smaller gambling venue near Shiprock that only offers low-stakes gambling.

Under the new compact, the Navajos would be allowed to build three more casinos over the next 15 years. However, the tribe says that their first order of business is to upgrade their current facilities; only after those projects are completed would they consider expanding to any new locations.

“I foresee another casino being built to be a long, long way off,” Shelly said.

Economic Booster for Tribe

For proponents of the casino, the compact is seen as a way to promote the continued economic development on Navajo lands.

“It will help the Navajo people, who are my people, with the keeping of their jobs,” said Representative Sandra Jeff. “If they open up another facility it will be more jobs for the Navajo people.”

However, many other tribes in the state are concerned that adding more Navajo casinos will impact their facilities – particularly the Acoma and Laguna pueblos, which say that if the Navajos open a new casino near Albuquerque, it could hurt their own nearby casinos. Opponents point out that there are already over 20 casinos in the state being operated by 14 different tribes, along with several casinos at New Mexico racetracks.

“I’m just afraid there’s not the market for more facilities,” said Representative Georgene Louis. “I am worried because I have constituents…that work and support their families by jobs at facilities that are very close to Albuquerque.”

The Navajos, however, have pointed out that they aren’t even certain they’ll expand at all. There’s also the fact that the current compact has no limit on the number of casinos they could operate.

The new compact could also be lucrative for the state. The agreement would increase the rates of the payments made by the Navajos to come into line with the rates other tribes in the state are paying. Payments are based on the proceeds tribes receive from slot machines at their casinos.