ALBANY – If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is trying to pressure the Seneca Nation to resolve a bitter money dispute with the state by threatening to let a non-Indian casino locate in downtown Niagara Falls, it doesn’t seem to be working.
After weeks of silence following claims by Cuomo and his advisers that the governor is serious about a plan for a his Niagara Falls casino if the $600 million casino revenue sharing dispute is not soon resolved, a Seneca leader said Monday the tribe is not worried about the state’s increasingly tough words.
“I don’t think we’re taking it as a threat. Period,’’ said Seneca Tribal Councillor Bryan Gonzales, who was in Albany Monday with other Native American leaders from around New York to discuss ways to improve relations between the state and the Indian tribes.
“To us, it’s competition. You look at Atlantic City, Las Vegas. That’s what makes people better: competition. So that’s kind of the stance we’re taking on it,’’ Gonzales said in an interview.
The state and the Senecas have yet to resolve the dispute, now in arbitration, over the tribe’s refusal to pay $600 million in revenue sharing payments because they claim the original compact giving the Seneca Nation exclusive gambling rights in a large section of Western New York has been repeatedly violated by Albany.
The dispute has caught the three local “host’’ communities – Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca – in the middle because they, too, are supposed to get a portion of the casinos’ slot machine revenues under the deal by the tribe and former Gov. George E. Pataki.
Sources say the tribe is insisting on an extension of its exclusivity compact, which expires in 2016, for there to be any deal with Cuomo. They also want new restrictions on the marketing abilities of racetrack-based gambling halls in Hamburg, Batavia and at the Finger Lakes racetrack Canandaigua so that they can no longer advertise themselves as casinos or that they offer slots. Technically, the “racinos’’ can only offer video lottery terminals, which sound and look like slots but are legally considered to be lottery games.
The Cuomo administration declined comment Monday.
The clock is ticking because Cuomo and state lawmakers are negotiating a plan to permit up to seven new non-Indian casinos in undetermined parts of the state. The administration earlier this year floated the idea that Cuomo was open to a casino being located near the Seneca-owned casino in Niagara Falls. The governor said at a recent Buffalo News editorial board meeting that he is “very serious’’ about the idea of putting a casino near the falls if the revenue-sharing dispute is not resolved.
Cuomo, sources say, has met with Seneca Nation President Barry Snyder Sr. three times in recent months.
At the meeting of leaders and representatives of the major Indian tribes in Albany Monday, officials said the Cuomo administration should be taking advantage of the growing economic development influence of Native American tribes, especially upstate. Several called on Cuomo to name a point person to handle relations with the tribes in the state, and urged that he name Native Americans to the state’s 10 regional economic development councils that advise the administration on how to spend job creation money.
Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, said it is fine the state is spending money to lure businesses to New York. But, he added, “I couldn’t help but to think to myself that New York state has assets here right under its nose … These are the Indian nations who are right here in this state.’’
He added that unlike some corporations, New York’s tribes are here to stay on their lands. “This is our home and it will be our home until the end of time,’’ said Halbritter, whose Central New York casino and other business venture employ 6,000 people, most of them non-Indians.
Gonzales said, “With the Seneca Nation being an economic engine in Western New York, we just wish the governor would want to be more involved with that.’’
“Their main message is economic development,’’ said Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican who chairs the Senate’s Indian affairs panel that conducted Monday’s session with the Indian tribe leaders. “They’d like the cooperation of the state rather than be in a competitive position with the state, and I think it’s probably a good thing to do.’’