Items on display at the Pamunkey Indian Museum & Cultural Center on the Pamunkey Reservation in Virginia. Photo: Will Parson / Chesapeake Bay Program

Pamunkey Tribe pushes for casino as Virginia opens door to new machines

Good timing, and some luck, may be on the side of the Pamunkey Tribe as it pursues a casino in Virginia.

The state opened the door to wagering on "historical" horse races in April. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) quickly directed the Virginia Racing Commission to develop regulations for the new machines on the same day he signed the authorizing bill.

"Certainly the stars seem to have been aligned," D.G Van Clief, Jr., the chairman of the commission, said at an April 18 public meeting, just a week after the machines became law. "This is historic in nature and in the direction that I think will enable us to go forward."

The Pamunkeys are poised to benefit from the alignment of those stars. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribes can offer the same types of games that are legal in a state.

According to the National Indian Gaming Commission's Model Gaming Ordinance, wagering on horse racing falls into the Class III category. That means the tribe might be able to offer other types of Class III games if it enters into a compact with the state.

Indianz.Com on Google Maps: Pamunkey Tribe - Homelands and New lands in Virginia

“We would love to not be reliant on federal programs,” Chief Robert Gray told The Washington Post of his tribe's desire to enter the Indian gaming industry, “to have our own economic drivers funding the programs that we want to provide for our tribal members — housing, medical, job placement, education. It’d be great if we could just pay for that ourselves.”

Whether historical horse racing automatically opens the door to Class III games remains an open question. But after Idaho legalized the same types of games, tribes complained that doing so violated the exclusivity provisions of their compacts because the devices installed at non-Indian racetracks looked a lot like slot machines, which are Class III. The state eventually rescinded the authorizing law.

Class III gaming otherwise isn't legal in Virginia. But officials, including the governor, are taking an interest, especially since neighboring Maryland is home to several casinos, including the MGM National Harbor, a large facility just outside of Washington, D.C. MGM, incidentally, had tried to derail the Pamunkeys during the federal acknowledgment process.

“I think there is the potential for it. Obviously, we’re going to take it one step at the time,” Northam told The Washington Post.

After Northam won election last November, Indianz.Com asked his campaign about his position on tribes but didn't hear back. In most states, the governor is charged with negotiating Class III gaming compacts.

Besides a compact, the tribe still needs land for a casino and that land would need to be placed in trust. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar poses hurdles because the Pamunkeys only gained official recognition of its federal status in 2016, long past the 1934 date in the ruling.

The tribe has a state-recognized reservation but doesn't plan on building the casino there. Sites close to the reservation, which is about an hour east of Richmond, the state capital, are being considered for the $700 million development.

Read More on the Story:
Long opposed to casinos, Virginia may be ready to gamble (The Washington Post May 5, 2018)
New Kent supervisors to hold town hall meeting on possible casino, sale of Colonial Downs (The Richmond Times-Dispatch April 30, 2018)

Some Opinions:
Editorial: Is Virginia money worth the wager (The Newport News Daily Press May 5, 2018)
DONNIE JOHNSTON: Don't bet on latest effort to revive Colonial Downs (The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star May 4, 2018)
Roger Chesley: You can bet on casinos coming to Virginia, courtesy of the Pamunkey (The Virginian-Pilot May 3, 2018)

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