Gov. Cuomo talks tough with Indians over casinos PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Written by MICHAEL HILL, Associated Press   
Sunday, 19 May 2013 07:19

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo's tough talk about Indian casinos breaks with the past practice of governors treading carefully with tribes sharply protective of their sovereign rights.

Cuomo's explanation is simple: Money disputes between the state and the tribes have simmered for years. Now he is proposing three casinos in yet-to-be disclosed locations in upstate New York. And he wants voters to decide on an amendment to the state constitution this year that would allow full casinos off of Indian land.

It's time to make decisions.

"I would imagine he's moving down his agenda and he needs some more money, maybe this is a good time to take it on," said Jeffrey Stonecash, who teaches political science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School. "I would imagine most of the people in the state are sympathetic to the state squeezing the Indian nations."

Cuomo was already in negotiations with the Oneida Indian Nation on May 9 when he warned that the state would consider allowing casinos near existing operations run by tribes that were not in good standing with the state. The talks bore fruit Thursday with an agreement that would provide exclusive territory for the Oneida's Turning Stone casino in central New York. The state would get a cut of casino revenue, and local tax and land disputes would be resolved.

Agreements will likely be harder with the Senecas and the Mohawks because of ongoing money disputes.

The Seneca Nation of Indians has withheld more than $500 million in casino payments to the state since 2009, claiming that New York violated a compact with the tribe by allowing video slot gambling in its exclusive western New York territory. The Senecas, who operate casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca, are in binding arbitration with the state.

Cuomo suggested Thursday that the Senecas' compact would not be renewed after 2016 if they do not reach a deal.

"Under these current circumstances, I don't see how any state officials could support extending the compact when the other side hasn't paid," Cuomo said.

Similarly, the St. Regis Mohawks have withheld $59 million since 2010. The nation has cited illegal slot machines on other Mohawk land in its exclusive northern New York territory.

The desire to settle these disputes takes on more urgency with a statewide vote to expand gambling possible in November. Tribal agreements would allow Cuomo to focus on building support with lawmakers, the public and other gambling interests. The tribes, as Cuomo explains it, would receive assurances that new casinos won't open in their backyards.

"It's a poker game, is the way I look at it, between the Senecas and the governor and between the other casinos and the governor as well," said Don Grinde, a University at Buffalo professor of transnational studies who has written extensively on the Iroquois and U.S. Indian policy. "Cuomo could be bluffing, the Senecas could just say, 'We're just going to hold our hand and see what happens after all the cards are dealt out.'"

Seneca Nation President Barry Snyder has reacted with some tough talk of his own, accusing Cuomo of using "playground bully tactics" as the tribe acts in good faith and negotiates diplomatically.

The Mohawk tribal government has not commented on Cuomo's remarks.

James W. Ransom, who dealt with state leaders when he was a Mohawk chief, said Cuomo should be building relationships with the Mohawks, not threatening them.

"Rather than say, 'OK, let's sit down and see how we can work together,' it's, "Do it my way or else,'" Ransom said. "I mean it's easy to say but it's hard to do and it doesn't produce win-win relationships, and that's really what the state needs."

Cuomo has taken a hard stance before on Indian issues. After nearly two decades of failed efforts to tax Indian cigarettes, the Cuomo administration in 2011 began seizing untaxed cigarettes and tobacco products sold to non-Indians. In two years, 122,680 cartons of unstamped cigarettes were seized.

The decision was not without risks. In 1997, when the state tried to collect a tax on Indian cigarette sales, protesters lit tire fires and shut down a 30-mile stretch of the New York state Thruway that bisects Seneca land near the Pennsylvania line.

Cuomo's public hard line contrasts with the tack his father took when he was New York's secretary of state in 1977. Mario Cuomo helped negotiate an end to a tense three-year occupation by Mohawks of land at Moss Lake in the Adirondacks, which led to the creation of the Ganienkeh encampment.

"The philosophy was never push anybody into corner, find out what really they're looking for," said Lou Grumet, then a special assistant to Mario Cuomo handling negotiations with the Indians.

Grumet recalls stomping into Cuomo's office one day, upset that the Indians had changed terms on what looked like a deal. Grumet suggested calling state troopers in to teach them a lesson. Mario Cuomo responded by telling Grumet to contact the wife of a trooper they worked with and tell her the secretary of state was going to buy the family a big Christmas dinner.

Grumet asked why, and Cuomo responded: "Tell her that my young hothead has just lost his temper and her husband is likely to be shot in a pitched battle right after Christmas and we want her to spend the last Christmas nicely."

Grumet went back to the negotiating table and struck a deal.

More than three decades later, the St. Regis Mohawks cited slot machines at Ganienkeh when they began withholding state casino payments.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.


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