New Mexico sues to stop federal approval of new gambling compact with Pojoaque Pueblo

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SANTA FE, New Mexico — Gov. Susana Martinez's administration has sued the federal government to stop the Interior Department from approving a new gambling compact for Pojoaque Pueblo and imposing it on New Mexico.

The governor's office filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, contending the interior secretary doesn't have the authority to implement a compact under procedures being followed by Pojoaque after it failed to negotiate a new gambling agreement with the state.

Interior Department spokeswoman Emily Beyer said Friday she could not comment on pending litigation.

Jessica Hernandez, the governor's deputy chief of staff and attorney, said in a statement that Pojoaque "is attempting to use regulations from the Department of Interior to conduct gaming in a way that is contrary to the best interests of New Mexicans and neighboring pueblos."

A federal appeals court ruled in a Texas case in 2007 that the federal agency couldn't impose a gambling compact on the state using that process, but that decision isn't binding on federal judges in New Mexico.

Pojoaque Gov. George Rivera said, "The Department of Interior will be able to defend their position very well, and I think the compact between the Pueblo of Pojoaque and the Department of Interior will move forward."

The pueblo isn't named as a defendant in the state's lawsuit.

Martinez objects to Pojoaque's proposed compact, which would stop tribal revenue sharing payments to the state, allow the serving of alcohol in gambling areas and allow the tribe to lower the gambling age in the tribe's casinos from 21 to 18.

The governor contends the proposed changes in casino operations would give Pojoaque a competitive advantage over other New Mexico tribes with casinos.

Rivera said the tribe doesn't plan to drop the gambling age, but wants to deal with that issue through tribal regulation rather than having it among gambling policies prohibited by the state. He objects that the state wants the tribe to pay a greater share of revenue in a new compact.

The pueblo's compact with New Mexico expires in mid-2015. After failing to negotiate a new agreement with the Martinez administration, the tribe is seeking a compact through procedures the Interior Department established through regulations.

For that process to become available, a tribe must sue in federal court contending that a state isn't negotiating in good faith. If the state shields itself from the lawsuit by invoking sovereign immunity — as New Mexico has done — the tribe can ask the interior secretary to approve a compact governing casino gambling on tribal lands.

Pojoaque is among 14 tribes in New Mexico that operate casinos under compacts with the state.

Tribes pay the state a share of slot-machine proceeds after a deduction for how much gamblers win and regulatory fees. New Mexico received about $69 million last year from all tribes.

The lawsuit contends the department's administrative compact procedures violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, exceed the powers that Congress granted the secretary under that law and "constitute an unconstitutional exercise of legislative authority in violation of the doctrine of separation of powers."

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