Niagara Gazette — ALBANY — The Oneida Indians on Thursday signed a deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration and local governments that would guarantee them exclusive territory for their central New York casino in exchange for revenue payments to the state of around $50 million annually.
The broad deal not only helps Cuomo as he seeks to expand casino gambling, it also settles longstanding tax and land claim issues that have cast shadows over the Oneida Indian Nation's relationship with its upstate neighbors.
"This was one of the truly lingering, festering, negative situations in the state," Cuomo, a Democrat, said at a state Capitol signing ceremony. "To finally come to terms and work through all these years of emotion and years of disappointment was extraordinary."
Another lingering issue is the Seneca Nation of Indians and the state. Caught in the middle, the Falls is awaiting $60 million in casino cash payments. About $600 million is owed to the state.
In applauding Thursday's Oneida agreement, Mayor Paul Dyster said it reinforces his belief that a negotiated settlement was the preferred way to resolve the issue.
"Today's announcement confirms my long-standing and often-professed belief that if there is a way to settle that dispute at the bargaining table, Gov. Cuomo will find it,” Dyster said. "I am 100 percent behind the governor on this matter, because, I know that whatever course he follows, he has the interest of the people of the state of New York and the city of Niagara Falls at heart."
Under Thursday's deal, the Oneidas would be assured that no competing casino would be located across a broad swath of land in the middle of the state and the tribe would agree to give to the state 25 percent of the Turning Stone casino's net revenue from slots, expected to be around $50 million annually.
The Oneidas agreed to place no more than 25,000 acres of land into trust, effectively settling the tribe's longstanding land claims. The Oneidas would charge prices for cigarettes comparable with non-Indian merchants, who have complained they can't compete with the Oneida's untaxed goods. The tribe said it already does that with gasoline sales.
Local governments would see income from a number of sources. For instance, the state would distribute a quarter of the revenue it receives from the tribe to Oneida County, where Turning Stone is located. Neighboring Madison County would get a one-time payment of $11 million for past tax claims.'
The counties agreed to drop ongoing litigation against the Oneidas over the tribe's application to put land into trust. "This is a success not just for the Oneida people, it's a win for central New York and a win for the state," Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter said.
The Oneida leader announced the deal along with Cuomo, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente and Madison County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Becker.
Cuomo drove hard for the deal as he works on his proposal to bring three Las Vegas casinos to upstate New York at yet-to-be-identified locations. A public referendum to change New York's constitution to allow non-Indian casinos could be on the ballot as early as November. The deal announced Thursday effectively sidelines the Oneidas as a potential deep-pocketed foe of expansion.
Cuomo said the deal will stand whether or not voters approve expanded gambling, though it still needs approval by state and county legislatures, the Department of the Interior and the state attorney general.
The agreement comes a week after Cuomo said Indian casinos run by the Oneidas, Senecas and Mohawks could face competition in their backyards if talks with tribes fail to yield results.
The governor on Thursday did not indicate any progress in talks with the Seneca Nation of Indians or the St. Regis Mohawks. Those tribes have been withholding casino payments to the state because they claim it violated their compacts by allowing gambling in their exclusive territories.