By Michael Hill, Associated Press
ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that New York’s Indian casinos could face competition in their backyards if talks with tribes over his gambling expansion proposal fail to yield results soon.
Cuomo’s harder public stance with the tribes comes as he tries to shepherd his proposal to bring three Las Vegas-style casinos to upstate New York at yet-to-be-identified locations.
The owners of the former Nevele hotel in Ellenville and the former Concord in Sullivan County are among those hoping to win approval to operate non-Indian casinos.
State lawmakers are considering casino legislation, and a public referendum to change New York’s Constitution to allow non-Indian gaming halls could be on the ballot as early as November.
Three of the six upstate regions Cuomo is looking at already have Indian casinos. The governor said he would not allow a new casino to operate in a region where there already is a casino run by a tribe in good standing with the state. But that could change for tribes that fail to resolve issues with the state in current rounds of talks.
“The Senecas have a decision to make, the Oneidas have a decision to make, the Mohawks have a decision to make,” Cuomo told reporters at a Capitol news conference on Thursday. “It’s the same decision factors today that there are going to be in nine months. For the legislation to work, we need certainty and we need closure.”
The Seneca Nation of Indians and the St. Regis Mohawks have, for years, been withholding casino payments to the state, claiming New York violated contracts with the tribes by allowing gambling in their exclusive territories. The Senecas, who operate casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca, have withheld more than $500 million since 2009 and are in binding arbitration with the state.
The Mohawks, who operate a casino on their northern New York land straddling the Canadian border, decided in October 2010 to stop making payments and have withheld $59 million.
The Oneida Indian Nation’s 20-year-old compact with the state does not require revenue sharing from its Turning Stone casino east of Syracuse, but it also does not grant them an exclusive territory. Cuomo suggested the Oneidas could acquire exclusive rights to their central New York territory, perhaps in context of settling longstanding land claims.
Cuomo stressed new casinos could bring desperately needed economic activity to parts of upstate New York that have been struggling for generations.
But the state, for generations, has had only mixed success in dealing with Indian issues, and it was unclear if the governor’s latest attempt would work. Even Cuomo, citing long-simmering issues with the Mohawks and Senecas, said he was dubious.
“We respect the governor’s comments today on the complexities of the issues, and we are engaged in a constructive dialogue with his administration,” Ray Halbritter, an Oneida Nation representative, said in a prepared statement.
A spokeswoman for the Senecas said they were abiding by the gag order set by arbitrators and could not comment. A Mohawk spokesman said the tribe had not had enough time to review the issues brought up by Cuomo to comment right away.
Cuomo hopes to strike a casino deal soon with the Legislature, which is scheduled to end it regular session June 20.
Under the governor’s proposal, potential casino sites would be identified by a special selection committee. No casinos would be located in New York City for at least five years, giving upstate operations a better chance to thrive, Cuomo said.
“A New York City franchise would eat at the buffet table of the upstate casinos,” he said.
Host localities and counties in the region around new casinos would split 20 percent of the government’s revenue, with the state getting the rest. The state uses gambling revenue for education aid.