By Mark Scheer
NIAGARA FALLS —
Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy said this week that there’s no timeframe for resolving an ongoing casino revenue dispute between the state of New York and the Seneca Nation of Indians.
During a visit to Niagara Falls, Duffy suggested Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to expand casino offerings statewide was rooted, at least in part, in avoiding similar circumstances in the future.
“What the governor wants is to bring a sense of performance and results to the gaming industry across New York state,” Duffy said during a visit to the Public Safety Complex on Main Street. “This first round with the assembly and the senate was to start a process to change the whole landscape of gaming in New York state.”
Earlier this month, state lawmakers took the first step toward expanding casino gaming statewide by authorizing a constitutional amendment that would lift a long-held prohibition on Las Vegas-style gambling operations in New York. The plan calls for the development of seven additional casinos on non-indian lands. Formal passage would require another round of approval by the state Legislature which could come as early as next year. The proposed amendment also would have to be
approved by voters statewide. Cuomo has endorsed the plan, noting that gaming is already a reality in New York.
“We’re already doing it as the governor’s pointed out,” Duffy said. “As you look at the state, there is gambling that’s going on, from racinos to obviously Native American casinos, but I don’t think anybody would argue that the current system is as effective or as cost-effective as it should be.”
In Western New York, the current system revolves around three Class III gaming operations run by the Seneca Nation. Under the compact with the state that gave the nation the authority to get into the gaming business, slot mac
hine revenues from the three facilities, including Seneca Niagara Casino, are shared with the state and host municipalities such as Niagara Falls.
Those dollars stopped flowing amid the dispute between the nation and the state. The city hasn’t received a payment in two years. The lack of incoming revenue is now threatening key aspects of city government â€” from street repair plans to the neighborhood cleanup team known as ZOOM.
The dispute has centered on the nation’s belief that the state’s expansion of gaming at so-called “racinos” has infringed on its rights under the compact to run gaming operations exclusively in Western New York.
In November, state officials prematurely announced a proposal to allow the Seneca Nation to receive credit from the state for delivering casino dollars directly to host municipalities while the two sides continued to try to settle their differences. The deal never came to pass.
Later that same month Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter accused the Cuomo administration of failing to negotiate in “good faith” as required under the provisions of the gaming compact. Porter announced the nation’s plan to resolve the matter through arbitration, while re-stating claims that the state has violated exclusivity terms contained in the compact.
Duffy said the Cuomo administration is still hoping to resolve all differences to “everybody’s benefit.” At this point, he said, there’s no timeframe for resolution, adding that “it may take awhile.”
In the meantime, he said, the governor’s office understands the impact of the situation on host communities like Niagara Falls. He added that he wasn’t aware of anything that would preclude the Seneca Nation from distributing the money to local municipal governments if it chooses to do so.
“That does not involve Gov. Cuomo,” Duffy said. “Gov. Cuomo is not involved with that, nor has the governor said or done anything to cause the Seneca Nation not to provide Niagara Falls with the money that they are owed.”
“As a former mayor, I fully understand Mayor Dyster’s concerns in trying to balance his budget, trying to make sure police officers, firefighters, city workers, parks, libraries â€” all the things that the citizens in the city worry about â€” aren’t caught up in budget issues,” Duffy added. “Quite frankly, in the system the governor envisions for the future, these kinds of disputes should not happen. I think he’s looking to bring a much more performance-based, taxpayer-friendly system and that’s going to take awhile.”
Duffy discussed the casino revenue issue with Mayor Paul Dyster during a meeting before a DNA Databank press conference Thursday in the Falls.
Dyster said his office is continuing to impress upon representatives from the governor’s office as well as Seneca Nation the importance of ending the dispute. He said representatives both sides have indicated a desire to make sure the financial needs of the host communities are met.
“It seems to me that it is in everyone’s best interest would be served by getting this issue of payments to municipalities resolved as soon as possible,” Dyster said.
Based on his conversations with officials from the state and the Seneca Nation, Dyster said it appears as though some type of direct payment option is still available.
From the city’s perspective, Dyster believes that would be the preferred option. He noted that there are number of factors surrounding gaming in New York right now, including issues like the constitutional amendment and the gaming revenue arbitration process that likely will not be resolved for a year or better.
From a financial standpoint, Dyster said the city and other host communities can’t afford to wait that long.
“That, to me, points back in the direction of finding a way to get municipalities paid sooner rather than later,” Dyster said. “I haven’t heard anybody in Albany say to us ‘wait a year before we get paid.’ “