Pojoaque Pueblo Tribe Loses Gaming Lawsuit against New Mexico

Buffalo Thunder Casino in Santa Fe

Buffalo Thunder Casino is Owned by the Pojoaque Pueblo Tribe

On Friday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Pojoaque Pueblo Tribe against New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez’s administration. The suit came while gaming compact negotiations are stalled between the state and the tribe over the sharing of revenue. The tribal lawsuit contended that the government of New Mexico was trying to impose a tax on the tribe without giving any benefit. The State of New Mexico claims they want a bigger share of the revenue, but they are offering trade-offs in exchange for changing the percentages.

The loss in the U.S. district court is only a temporary setback for the tribe, as federal law allows for a final step in the process, in which the Department of the Interior is involved. Federal law provides Native American tribes certain sovereign rights when its comes to gambling activities. To be able to operate a legal casino, though, the tribe must agree on a compact between itself and the state in which the tribe’s reservation is found.

Sovereign Immunity Trumps the Lawsuit

U.S. District Senior Judge James Parker stated the state’s sovereign immunity is a legal shield against the Pojoaque Pueblo’s lawsuit, which is his legal justification for throwing out the suit. The suit was filed in December 2013 by the tribe, whose reservation is found north of Sante Fe, New Mexico. In all, New Mexico has compacts with 14 different tribes.

If the tribe wants to keep its two casinos open until the expiration of the current compact in June 2015, it will have to ask the federal government to approve a compact.

Cities of Gold and Buffalo Thunder

The Pojoaque Pueblo Tribe operates the Cities of Gold Casino and the Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino, which are both located in Santa Fe. The tribe also has slot machines in a hotel, a sports bar, and two local gas stations.

In defending his tribe’s lawsuit, Pojoaque Pueblo Governor George Rivera told the Albuquerque Journal, “I respect state government and the process, but…the Pueblo got to the point where were not going to get a fair deal by negotiating and asking nicely, so we just have to take the next step.

No Alcohol Drives Customers Away

George Rivera said that the state’s cut of the revenues was unfair and would make them uncompetitive with casinos in nearby states, but their complaints went further. One of the major issues is the Martinez administration’s reluctance to allow legal alcohol sales in the tribe’s casinos.

If one casino offers alcoholic beverages and the other cannot, then a large percentage of high dollar players will go to the gaming establishment with a bar,” George Rivera said, in pointing out the tribe sees this as essential to their business. “We’ve got high-end players that will go to (Las) Vegas because they can drink their beer at a slot machine.

State’s Argument

The state claims the tribe has not negotiated in good faith. Officials in Susana Martinez’s administration say they are not trying to impose a new tax, but instead are negotiating an increase in revenue sharing in exchange for exclusivity.

That exclusivity comes in the form of a limitation on racetrack casinos, along with other nontribal gambling facilities. These officials contend that such a limitation works to the advantage of tribal gaming, because it limits the competition inside New Mexico. The current revenue sharing rate is 8% (to the state), but New Mexico wants to move the revenue sharing to 9.5%. Eventually, it will reach 10.5%.

Tribe’s Counter-Argument

The Pojoaque Pueblo say they view exclusivity as meaningless. The Indian tribe says it never asked for such provisions and, when they file with the Department of the Interior, they will not ask for such provisions. In their view, the state is using a sham negotiating tactic to force an increase in the money they collect from Pojoaque gaming activities.

Secretary of Interior Decides

Compact law has a specific resolution when a judge throws out a lawsuit. The dispute goes before the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Tribal lawyers have indicated this will be the next step. The tribe will submit a proposal and ask the Secretary of Interior to issue a binding compact. The state also has the right to submit an alternative proposal.

A mediator then will select between the two competing proposals and the Secretary of Interior has the final say in the matter. Thus, the ruling by the Senior Judge James Parker is just the next step in the process. The next step in the process should be forthcoming in the weeks ahead, as the Buffalo Thunder Casino and Cities of Gold Casino are going to need legal license to continue operating.