BOSTON -- Gov. Bruce G. Sundlun of Rhode Island said yesterday that his administration has entered into an agreement with the Narragansett Indian tribe that could bring casino gambling to the state.
The announcement was made late yesterday afternoon at a press conference at the statehouse in Providence.
Neither the governor's office nor the tribe would comment on the accord until after the press conference had ended.
Legislative sources in Rhode Island said, however, that the agreement between the tribe and the state will allow the Narragansetts to operate a casino in exchange for paying the state 16.5% of gross casino revenues.
The agreement was considered to be a significant development in New England by financial players, especially with Massachusetts actively courting the Wampanoag tribe for a tribal-run casino in New Bedford.
But Gov. William E Weld of Massachusetts is not as far along with his plans to bring gambling to the state as Sundlun appears to be.
Last week, Weld signed a letter of intent with the Wampanoags that said the governor is committed to several provisions that would bring gambling to the state.
Weld said he would give state lawmakers an opportunity to vote yes or no on the measure. He said that both the state and the tribe were committed to a plan ironed out by the governor's counsel that could send hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the state's coffers.
Weld's next step will be to create a compact and convince legislators to support it. That may be easier in Sundlun's case because both Sundlun and the legislative leadership are Democrats. Weld is a Republican and the Massachusetts legislature is controlled by Democrats.
The accord in Rhode Island was not expected because Sundlun has been an opponent of using casino revenues to help states balance their budgets. The governor's change of position was spurred by recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that will permit tribal-owned casinos.
The Rhode Island tribe has. the benefit of working with a company that has experience in the establishment of Indian casinos.
The company, Capital Gaming International, has set up tribal casinos in six locations, including one in upstate New York. The Massachusetts tribe's company, Carnival Hotels and Casinos, has not handled any Indian casinos.
That experience could be important. Many tribes decide that the best spot for their casinos is off tribal land, which requires federal approval for the construction.
One. Rhode Island source familiar with the negotiations said yesterday that the state and the tribe are leaning to a site off Interstate ROute 95 near West Greenwich.
If approved, the casino would face a stiff challenge from the highly successful Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard, Conn. Last year, Foxwoods, which is managed by the Mashantucket-Pequot tribe, earned more than $800 million after prizes were paid.
But legislative approval of the Rhode Island casino is by no means assured. The casino could be hurt by the same type of political bickering that is expected in Massachusetts. After Weld forged his agreement with the tribe, legislators throughout the Bay State said that they would fight the governor's plan because they want a piece of the casinos in their district.
Several legislators in Rhode Island said that plans to establish casinos in Charleston and Providence have not been set aside just because of yesterday's announcement.
Steven White, public information officer for state Attorney General Jeff Green, said yesterday that his office plans a thorough review of the governor's agreement.
"We have not been privy to any of the governor's negotiations," White said. "We have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court with a writ of certiorari to review the use of gambling in the state."
White said that Green is, "personally and professionally opposed to the establishment of gambling" in Rhode Island.
"As the state's top law official, Jeff is worried about what the establishment of gambling will do to the state's crime rate, the impact on the living environment of the state, and legal ramifications of the casino," White said.
Massachusetts Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger voiced similar concerns last week when the Warnpanoag plan was announced.