Seneca President to NY State: 'Honor Your Legal Agreements'

Gale Courey Toensing
9/13/11

Seneca Nation opposes proposal for commercial gaming

Seneca Nation of Indians President Robert Odawi Porter stood recently in the same place where the Senecas and other nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy signed the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, and urged New York state “to honor its legal agreements.” But this time Porter wasn’t referring to the 217-year-old treaty; he was talking about the 2002 gaming compact that gives the Seneca Nation exclusive gaming rights in western New York.

Porter and several busloads of Seneca Niagara Casino Hotel employees wearing red T-shirts with white letters reading “No More Broken Promises” traveled to Canandaigua where Porter testified at a public hearing before the state Senate Committee on Racing, Wagering and Gaming on a proposal to amend the state constitution to allow commercial gaming.  “This (1794) treaty was signed right here in Canandaigua and so it is especially significant that the committee is conducting its first hearing on the subject of legalizing commercial gambling in the State,” Porter told the legislators.” In the history of the Seneca and American people, this is a sacred place—a place where solemn commitments were made to respect and honor one another and to live together in peace.”

Seneca opposes the commercial gaming proposal, Porter said.  “A constitutional amendment allowing commercial casino gambling in Western New York would undermine the Seneca Nation’s billion dollar investment in Western New York. It would also threaten the thousands of jobs we have created since 2002,” he said. “The Seneca people have lived up to our promises as expressed in the 2002 agreement—we invested hundreds of millions of dollars into getting up and running within a specific time frame. New York State, on the other hand, was not required to spend a single nickel as part of the agreement. Are we now faced with New York State breaking its side of that promise?”

Faced with a projected $10 billion budget shortfall for 2012, last month New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that his administration is researching the gaming industry and discussing whether to endorse a constitutional amendment that would legalize gambling statewide. “It’s really not an issue anymore of ‘Well, if we don’t officially sanction it as a government, it’s not going to happen,’” Cuomo said. “It is happening. So now you have to go to the second step. If there is going to be gaming, how should it be done? And that issue, that question, is an important question for the state.” Cuomo’s announcement followed a statement a month earlier by Sen. John J. Bonacic, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Racing, Wagering and Gaming Committee, said he intended to hold hearings related to a constitutional amendment for both casino gaming and horse racing in the state. Bonacic said he wants to develop proposals that can pass both the Assembly and Senate relating to both private casino gaming development and improvements to New York’s horse racing industry.

Currently, three Indian nations—the Oneida, Seneca, and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe—own and operate five casinos in the central and northern part of the state. Slot machines are operating at eight race tracks, called “racinos,” and another is set to open at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens later this year. A constitutional amendment to allow non-Indian commercial gaming would require approval by the Legislature in two consecutive sessions and then approval by voters at a referendum.

In its 2002 gaming compact with the state, Seneca received the exclusive right to operate casino gaming in Western New York in exchange for paying the state 25 percent of slot machine revenues. The state in turn distributes 25 percent of the money it receives to the communities that host the casinos.  Since 2002, the Seneca Nation has remitted $475.2 million to the state.

The Seneca Nation’s first casino—the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel on its Niagara Falls Territory—opened on January 1, 2003. In addition to the Niagara Casino, Seneca also owns and operates the Seneca Allegany Casino and Hotel on its Allegany Territory in Salamanca in Cattaraugus County, and the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino on its Buffalo Creek Territory in Erie County.

“Today, the Seneca economy generates a little over $1 billion annually, employing approximately 6,000 people, including thousands of non-Indians in New York, Pennsylvania and Canada who work at our gaming businesses, our tobacco businesses, and in our government. Our economy has both public and entrepreneurial sectors making the Seneca Nation the fifth largest employer in Western New York,” Porter said.

The Seneca Gaming Corporation has approximately 3,600 employees—most of whom are non-Indians. The Seneca Gaming Corporation generated $95.4 million in payroll over the last year, plus $30 million in taxes, insurance and benefits, Porter said. The Seneca Gaming Corporation spent a total of $166 million with nearly 1,400 vendors during the period August 2010 to July 2011. Our construction projects over the last nine years—which includes casino construction and public works projects—total approximately $900 million, he said. Porter said that Seneca leaders will fight the erosion of the nation’s treaty rights and to protect its economy. “But the numbers make it clear that our fight for economic sovereignty is also a fight that protects the livelihoods of thousands of non-Indians, their families, their businesses and their communities throughout our region.”

Porter also addressed the continuing disputes with the state over the nation’s reimbursements to the state for payments to the State Police and State Racing and Wagering Board for “regulatory expenses,” including the salaries of state personnel assigned to casino-related work and over the nation’s exclusivity payments to the state.

From the start of Seneca’s gaming operations at Niagara Falls, the state has overcharged the nation for its casino-related services, Porter said. “The Seneca Gaming Authority confirmed unsupported and exorbitant charges by the State Police that were invoiced to the Nation. Because these charges were not defendable – and because the State Police has refused to provide any explanation – the nation has denied paying these charges for years,” Porter said. The current unpaid balance is around $48 million.

The nation is also withholding $310 million in exclusivity payments to the state, asserting that the state has “grossly violated” the compact’s exclusivity requirement by allowing an illegal slot machine game called Moxie Mania to be offered in various taverns in the nation’s exclusivity area. The state has also allowed three racinos in Hamburg, Batavia and Finger Lakes, operating in the nation’s exclusivity area, to be renamed as “casinos” that offer “slot machines.”

“In 2002 we were promised slot machine exclusivity and we used that exclusivity to invest $1 billion in Western New York. We made those investments—borrowing and spending hundreds of millions of dollars, employing thousands of construction works, and hiring thousands of new employees,” Porter said. But he remained optimistic that these disputes would soon be resolved through negotiations already begun with the Cuomo administration. Looking to the future, Porter said the nation plans to construct a $53 million addition to the Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel and begin construction on a permanent Buffalo Creek Casino to replace the temporary building it uses now. The nation is also plans to open a new casino in the Catskills region.

“Our record is clear,” Porter told the legislators. “When Seneca treaties, agreements and sovereignty are respected, all will benefit. We hope to continue our economic and job development efforts in Western New York and beyond, and we look forward to continuing dialogue with you on this important issue."

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