ALBANY – Senate Republicans want to add more casinos in New York State, but not in Western New York.
The GOP’s casino expansion plan protects the Seneca Nation of Indians’ three casino investments in the region by honoring a decade-old compact between the state and tribe to keep new Las Vegas-style casinos from locating in a large portion of the region.
Legislation is being drafted that restricts the first of three possible casino locations to Sullivan County in the Catskills, the Tioga area west of Binghamton, and Saratoga or Washington counties north of Albany, according to Sen. John Bonacic, chairman of the Senate Racing and Wagering Committee.
All three are now home to racetrack-based casinos, and Bonacic, an Orange County Republican who represents the southern Catskills, said the existing “racinos” in those three areas should be given a preference “unless something better comes along.”
The state already has a compact with the Seneca Nation giving the nation exclusive rights to operate its three casinos in a large portion of the region that stretches north and south along State Route 14, north to Lake Ontario and south to Pennsylvania and as far west the Canadian border and Lake Erie, Bonacic said in an interview.
The compact is subject of a nasty dispute between the tribe and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration and is now before an arbitration panel.
In addition, Bonacic said, Western New York might not be able to handle any further casinos.
Cuomo has threatened to put another casino in Niagara Falls, but most Albany insiders saw that as a threat to move the Senecas at the negotiating table over the tribe’s refusal to pay $600 million in casino revenue-sharing payments to the state and localities the past several years.
“There’s a legal compact there, and you already have three casinos in the Buffalo area,” Bonacic said of the Seneca sites. “And I don’t believe in saturation. I don’t think it’s good business in terms of return to the State of New York to put a fourth one up there to compete for the same dollar when you have three.”
The Seneca Nation has been a big political supporter of the Senate Republican conference, pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars to individual senators and the central GOP campaign account in recent years.
Bonacic said the Senate plan, which could be presented to Cuomo as soon as today, also would not allow new casinos near an existing St. Regis Mohawk gambling hall in Northern New York that is also subject to a revenue-sharing compact. But it would leave open the possibility of new gambling competition near the Oneida Nation’s Central New York casino.
The Senate GOP plan calls for a timetable: The first casino would be licensed for the Catskills by June 2014, with the next either near Binghamton or Saratoga within six months to a year after that. The legislation will not propose where a fourth casino might be located, but it leaves Queens – home to a large racino at Aqueduct racetrack – as a possible site.
Cuomo and lawmakers are pushing a plan to permit up to seven full-blown casinos on non-Indian lands. The idea received its first required passage last year and needs approval again by lawmakers this year to change the state’s constitutional ban on such non-Indian casinos.
Voters statewide would get their chance to consider the plan in a referendum, likely this November, if Cuomo and lawmakers agree on a final deal before the session ends in June.
Bonacic said Senate Republicans believe any casino deal approved this year must identify the general regions where all seven casinos might locate.
“I do believe the voter has to know where they are going,” he said.
Cuomo has said he also wants the first three casinos to be limited to upstate, though he has not specified what that means.